Ella is an alien spy with blue hair, here on Earth to study human behaviour. So why does everyone insist she’s an ordinary little girl?

Chapter One - Me

My name is Ella, and I’m an alien with blue hair.

Okay, I’m only half alien. The Mothership brought me to Earth but left me behind with my very human father.  I’m here to collect information about the human race.

Its not hard to do. I don’t have to write anything down or remember things, like I do at school. I just watch the humans very carefully; the things they do, the words they say and the way they behave, and all of this gets soaked up in my brain, like a scrape of butter on warm toast. One day the Mothership will come and get me, and I’ll be put in a big machine that will read my brain like an encyclopedia.

Don’t worry, it won’t hurt. The Mothership would never hurt anyone.

Until I have collected enough information I have to stay here, in this house of warm, reddish-brown brick, with my family. There is my dad, and Arthur, and Hannah. Only they and Ms Suhn know about my mission here on Earth. Ms Suhn suggested I keep a journal about it, and I’m not sure why, because I’ve told her it’s a secret. The world can’t know about the Mothership. But she says I don’t have to tell anyone about what’s in my journal unless I want to.

I will tell you about Arthur first.

Chapter Two - Arthur

Arthur is my brother, and he’s . . . different.

He’s much smaller than the average human. He doesn’t eat the same food that we do. He eats mushy stuff that gets scooped up with a spoon. But Arthur refuses to do even this. He forces my dad, Hannah and sometimes even myself to deliver each mouthful to him personally. He then insults us by spitting most of it out. I tell Hannah she must not put up with this behaviour, that she should put her foot down. But she says we need to be patient with Arthur.

There are other things that worry me about my brother. Sometimes when I’m in the living room doing my homework my dad will lower his newspaper, and there’s Arthur, quietly nestled into his lap. I once suspected he was scanning the newspaper for information, but it seems he’s now progressed to training my dad to relay the headlines directly to him.

‘Look Arthur,’ he’ll say, flipping up the corners of the newspaper. ‘The Dow has fallen again.’

Arthur’s one-piece outfits look like spacesuits. His habit of wheedling written information from my dad is suspicious. And when I peer into his eyes they are so clear and blue I get the uneasy feeling that he can see . . . . everything. The atoms that make up air, and the nuclei inside the atoms.

Has the Mothership sent another spy?

Do I have competition?

Chapter Three - Mrs Suhn

‘If I’m not an alien, then why is my hair blue?’ I say triumphantly.

Ms Suhn sighs, very softly, and looks down at her notepad. 

I often make Ms Suhn sigh. When we start our time together she is positive and bouncy with energy. She greets me with a bright smile and says, ‘Hello Ella!’ as if I’m her favourite person. But as the minutes tick by she becomes a bit less cheerful. She starts to fiddle uneasily with her pen. Her shoulders slump, just a little. And then she sighs.

‘Ella …’ she begins.

‘Tell me that, Ms smarty-pants!’ I crow.

‘We’ve talked about this. The doctors think your hair is just the result of some genetic … mishap.’

‘A likely story!’ I jump up onto the coffee table and point at her accusingly. ‘No-one has blue hair! I am an alien!’

‘Some people have blue-black hair,’ she says, straightening her back a little. ‘Some people even have pure white hair. And when we get older our hair changes colour. Please get down from the coffee table.’

I jump from the table to the couch and wriggle into my usual position, with my knees hooked over the back. I glare at the now upside-down Ms Suhn.

‘Is there anything else you would like to talk about today?’ she asks. ‘How are things at home, Ella?’

‘I think my human brother may be another operative,’ I say. ‘I think he’s been sent to spy on me.’

The thought is a worrying one, but it seems to interest Ms Suhn. She straightens. Her pen twitches. ‘I’m sure Arthur is a perfectly normal little brother,’ she says, and pauses. ‘Do you like having a little brother?’

‘He is not my brother,’ I say, and Ms Suhn sighs for a second time. ‘Ella, of course he’s your brother. And I’m sure you’re a wonderful big sister.’

‘No!’ I slide off the couch by grabbing the backrest and swinging myself up. ‘I will not give up my mission to a tiny, crying being who might be spying on me!’ And I run to the door and out into the waiting room, where my dad is sitting.

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Chapter Four - My Dad

My dad is a science teacher. He doesn’t teach at my school, he works at the university in the city. He is very tall and his hair is often messy, because he doesn’t pay much attention to how he looks. Sometimes when he’s about to leave for work Hannah will say ‘Peter! Your hair! Didn’t you brush it?’ And then she’ll notice other little things, like the fact his shirt isn’t ironed or his socks aren’t matching or he doesn’t have his phone, which is usually in some strange place and out of charge. And then my dad will rush to the bedroom to get dressed all over again and look for the spare phone that Hannah bought him, which he’s usually lost.

I don’t know why Hannah has to be so critical. The universe will not collapse because my dad lets his hair get too long between haircuts, or that he goes to work with no phone and one shoelace undone. And when I shout at her to leave him alone, she says, ‘Oh Ella…’ and tries to reach out to me with hands that are always full of tea-towels or baby bottles or slices of bread. But I’ll run away and shut myself in my room or my safety pod.

When my dad’s not teaching he likes to work in the garden. He mows the lawn in clean, even strips and clips the hedges into smooth walls that divide our front yard from each of our neighbours. He fills the bird feeders and straightens the little solar lights that are dotted around the yard.

But it’s winter now, so my dad is forced inside well before dinnertime. He’ll light the wood heater then straighten with a pop of his knees and a satisfied sigh, before settling into his armchair and reading a newspaper. If Arthur is on his lap or crawling along the carpet he discusses the main stories with him. Then he’ll do the crosswords, calling out the clues to me. Between the two of us we always fill out the crossword, even if I’m doing my homework at the same time. I don’t mind being on Earth so much then, when the fire is warm and crackling away to itself and Arthur is babbling to us in his strange language. (He refuses to speak English.) But always there in an ache, somewhere deep inside of me. I don’t think it will go away until the Mothership comes back to get me.

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Chapter Five - Safety Pod

I’m in my safety pod, because today Arthur is being even more demanding than usual. His howls and screeches fill our house and make the windows rattle. I can feel little fists of air hammering at my ear drums.

I saw Hannah take some aspirin while she was making breakfast. After lunch she scooped up Arthur and found my Dad in the garden - he was watching the Honeyeaters wash themselves in the bird bath - and bundled Arthur into his arms.

‘We’ve run out of paper towel!’ she cried, her voice sounding higher than usual, and darted for the car. Arthur tried to grab at her with his chubby fists but she was too quick for him and made it to the driveway, things spilling out of her handbag as she whipped open the car door and disappeared into its interior.

As she roared off down the road I felt sorry for her - Arthur hardly ever lets her out of the house.

Dad carried my brother back inside, saying, ‘Now Arthur, what’s all this fuss about?’

Arthur tipped back his head back and howled at the ceiling, his arms flailing in outrage. I saw dad wince a little. He tried to tell Arthur about the discovery of a new insect in central Australia, but Arthur kicked and flailed and refused to be interested. He caught my eye and glared at me so balefully that I fled.

That’s why I’m in the big bedroom dad and Hannah share, curled up inside the built-in wardrobe. It’s very quiet and dark and peaceful. It has a carpeted floor. A stack of shoe boxes take up one end and I take up the other. The hems of jackets and dresses tickle the top of my head. With the door shut it becomes my safety pod, and I wonder when the Mothership will come for me. I wonder if I will be allowed to sit up front when it does, so I can see Saturn and its gigantic rings as we fly past it.

In the peaceful gloom, I press my toes against the neat stack of shoe boxes, and once again notice the one at the bottom of the stack. It doesn’t look like a regular shoebox. It’s the same size but prettier, because its patterned with little birds. Curious, I stretch out my hand, but something holds me back, something silent, but there, and I want to snatch my hand away.

But I’ve been left behind on Earth to find out everything, to go boldly where no Ella has gone before, so I pull out the box and place it on my lap.

I slide the door open just a little, to let the light in. Arthur’s outrage seems to have subsided and I suspect he’s fallen asleep, but you can never be sure with Arthur.

Birds flit across the box’s lid. Inside is a tiny blanket that smells of old roses. It looks too small to keep anyone warm, except for maybe someone Arthur’s size. Underneath the blanket are folded newspaper clippings. I take the top one and unfold it. It says;

Baby born with blue hair?

Doctors are baffled by a bub that’s been born with what seems to be blue hair. Though it will take some time for the tiny tot’s tresses to grow long enough to be sure, the delivering doctor seemed quite certain.

‘It’s definitely… blue,’ he said.

My heartbeat becomes a pair of wings that beat against my chest. Another person with blue hair? But that’s impossible! I only have blue hair because of my alien genes.

I lift the piece of newspaper up to my face and study the picture of the baby lying there, thin tufts of blue hair the same shade as my own curling up from its tiny skull. How is it that someone born on Earth has blue hair?

I run out to the kitchen, where dad is attempting to wedge a spoonful of goop into Arthur’s mouth.

‘What is this?’ I demand, my voice wavering as I wiggle the newspaper clipping in front of him. My dad glances at me distractedly. When he sees the clipping his face lights up for a moment, then shadows scurry over his features like sad clouds.

‘Where did you find that, Ella?’

But I ignore his question. ‘What’s going on? Who is this?’ I asked loudly.

‘It’s you, Ella.’ Dad pushes his glasses back up his nose. ‘I forgot all about those stories in the newspaper.’

I drop the clipping. It gets trapped in the eddy of air I create as I run to my room, swirling around in confusion.

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Chapter Six - Marigold

I am too old for play dates.

Yet here is Marigold, spindly and awkward-looking as her mother pushes her through our front door.

Marigold is the most badly put-together person I know. She is so skinny and tall I worry about her safety whenever there’s a strong wind. Her knees are too big and her arms are too thin and her skin is too pale for the Australian sun, so she always smells like sunscreen. She can only see by using glasses with very thick lenses and if she eats a prawn she could die. She has huge grey eyes and lots of curly red hair.

‘Let’s play Space Shuttle,’ she says.

Marigold thinks my safety pod is a place to play games. But I’ve learnt the best way to handle Marigold is to keep her calm and happy until her mum comes to collect her, so we go to the main bedroom and shut ourselves in.

‘We’re travelling to Mars,’ she says. ‘We’ll be the first two humans in history to walk on its surface.’ And she taps her skinny fingers against the back wall of the wardrobe, making ‘boop boop’ noises under her breath. ‘I’m just programming in our flight plan.’

Earth people are so funny.

‘What will we do there?’ I ask. I’m trying not to look at the stack of shoe boxes, even though the one with the birds flying across the lid has gone. I’ve hidden it in the laundry cupboard, behind the spare towels. I’ve been ignoring thoughts about the newspaper clipping, but they kept trying to bother me, like an itch at the back of my neck.

‘We’re going to live in the space station.’

‘If we’re the first two people on Mars, who built the space station?’

‘It was dropped there by spacecraft, just like the Rovers. It landed right on top of a mountain. We’ll be able to see for miles and miles and miles.’

I unexpectedly shiver with the excitement of it all - the first people on Mars!

‘What will we do all day?’

‘Study the planet.’ Marigold has finished programming the on-board computer and lays back, bracing her arms against the floor for the initial take-off. I do the same, pressing my spine against the back wall as we both gaze up at the ceiling, then through it, to the stars we’re about to fly into.

‘NASA has some very sophisticated equipment set up in our living quarters. We’ll have to observe what its studying, and make sure that everything is working well and repair any damage. We’ll also have to go outside and do Mars walks.’ And we look up at the clothes hanging over us, brushing against the top of our heads. Rows and rows of sparkling silver-grey spacesuits, with bulky arm and leg encasements, and gigantic boots. I hope NASA made them to fit, because Marigold and I are very different shapes.

The shuttle gives an unexpected shake as the rocket boosters fire up, and we both gasp at the shuddering in our crew cabin. Underneath us, massive engines are burning the fuel needed to lift us into space, and we take off in a roar of power. I clap my hands over my ears at the sound, but Marigold just gazes up at the ceiling of the cabin, as if willing us to get there faster.

It will take us almost a year to get to Mars.

As we roar through the sky we hear and feel the rocket boosters detach. Minutes later the external tank does the same, and our shuttle is free, flying through the atmosphere that buffets us badly before entering the peaceful silence of space. I sigh with relief.

‘The take-off is always the hardest part,’ said Marigold.

‘How are we breathing?’

‘Oxygen ports.’ Marigold pointed to the box-shapes on the other side of the cabin. ‘These machines recycle our air.’

Suddenly the hatch door rattles. Marigold lets out a little squeak. Then, to our horror and astonishment, it flies back, and the hatch is filled with a tall, alien shape.

‘What on earth are you two doing?’ it asks.

Marigold begins to scream.

#

By the time her mother arrives to pick her up, Marigold’s face has some colour in it again. Dad has made her a mug of hot chocolate and sliced an extra-thick piece of banana bread for her, talking to her in a soothing voice.

She manages to wave at me weakly as her mum backs her car out of our driveway.

‘I wish you girls would play outside and get some fresh air,’ says my dad, not for the first time, as we walk back to the house.

Hannah has started dinner. She says ‘Peter, I could use some help,’ in an unhappy voice. When my dad starts to unstack the dishwasher she says, ‘I wish I didn’t have to ask.’

I decide to leave. I know I’m supposed to study all kinds of human behaviour, but arguments aren’t one of my favourites to observe. My dad and Hannah can never argue for long because Arthur is always demanding attention, but once Hannah slapped the spatula down on the kitchen counter so hard it sent droplets of oil flying through the air, and my dad said ‘I just don’t know why you’re so upset,’ in a baffled voice.

I decide I have enough data on arguments and flee to my room.

The box is sitting on the end of my bed.

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Chapter Seven - Upside Down

‘Perhaps we can talk about your mother,’ says Ms Suhn.

I shut my eyes, and Ms Suhn’s upside-down face disappears behind a soothing wall of black.

‘You mean Hannah,’ I correct, and I half expect Ms Suhn to sigh. But her voice takes on a determined tone.

‘No Ella, I mean your mother,’ she says sternly.

Instead, I tell her about the box that appeared on my bed, and the newspaper clipping, and how I’ve re-hidden the box in the drawers under Arthur’s cot.

My diversion tactic works, and Ms Suhn readies her pen.

‘That must have been quite exciting, reading about yourself in a newspaper,’ she says.

‘It can’t have been me!’ I say. But my voice sounds strange. I clear my throat and try again. ‘That baby was born on Earth. I was left here by the Mothership to. …’

‘You look human to me,’ says Ms Suhn, with the smile she uses to let me know she is sharing a little joke with me.

‘Sometimes I don’t think you really understand my mission,’ I say crossly.

‘But now you know that having blue hair doesn’t have to mean that you’re an alien.’

I don’t like the silence that follows her words. It’s dark and heavy like a thundercloud. I want to press my hands against my ears, to avoid the coming clap of noise. Ms Suhn crosses her hands over her lap, her pen and notepad forgotten, and waits patiently.

‘I can’t be from Earth,’ I say, my breath hitching in my throat. Ms Suhn leans across the coffee table, plucking a tissue from the box and holding it out to me.

‘Sometimes when we tell ourselves stories, they can start to seem real to us. But it’s important to know they’re just stories.’ Her voice is so gentle that it pulls tears from my eyes. They run down my face and into my ears. I take the tissue, and Ms Suhn stands and goes to the door, and calls my dad in. He sits on the couch and tries to hold me, but it’s difficult, because I’m upside-down.

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Chapter Eight - Hannah

I’ve talked about Arthur and my dad, and Ms Suhn. Perhaps it’s time I talk about Hannah.

I feel very strange today. Its Saturday, but when my dad suggested I invite Marigold over Hannah said, ‘Perhaps its best Ella has a quiet day.’

My brain has been rattled since my last appointment with Ms Suhn. Strange thoughts have come loose and are now floating free. This morning I wanted to stay curled up in bed, under my quilt, but Hannah made me get up and shuffled me into the bathroom. She made me a big breakfast and fussed over me as dad was sent to tend to Arthur’s demands.

Arthur has been looking both surprised and disgruntled all morning. But for now he seems happy as he sits on my dad’s lap and monitors the information that my dad unwittingly relays out to him.

‘Kim Kardashian-West has written an autobiography, Arthur,’ he tells him.

I’ve eaten breakfast and helped Hannah do the dishes. It’s raining outside. I half-wish Marigold would come over. Playing Space Shuttle would distract me from the strange thoughts. Instead I will write in my journal. Ms Suhn always says it will help when I feel overwhelmed.

Hannah is a scientist too. But she doesn’t teach like my dad. She’s a geologist. She studies the Earth, prising out its secrets. She says the Earth has a lot of secrets. She says it holds onto trees that are now extinct, and old meteors and volcano eruptions that happened thousands or even millions of years ago. She says the Earth never lets go of anything, that it keeps everything that ever existed, forever.

Of course right now she can’t be a scientist, because Arthur keeps her locked down in this house. So she settles for reading a lot of text books. She gets very excited whenever she finds a new paper written by another geologist online. She says she might write a book on the patterns of mass extinctions written in fossilised trees. ‘When I have time,’ she adds, in a sing-song voice as she bounces Arthur on her hip.

She has dark brown hair which is always tied back in a messy bun and she hates to vacuum, so our carpet is always getting furry because it takes a long time for my dad to notice things like that. It’s not until Arthur begins to pick up scraps of paper and pen lids and paperclips and tries to cram them into his mouth that he scoops him up and drops him into his bouncy seat before rushing to get the vacuum cleaner from its cupboard. But Arthur hates the sound of the vacuum cleaner, so I’ll pick him up and take him outside so he can watch the people walking dogs or jogging along the footpath in front of our house. Hannah always comes with me and says, ‘Be careful, Ella,’ as if she expects me to drop him. I guess I could, because Arthur is very heavy for his size. It’s as if his center of gravity is heavier than it should be. Holding him is like holding a very small moon.

There was a time when Hannah didn’t live with us. She lived in Canada, and it was just me and my dad. Then she came to Australia, and met my dad, and we all moved into this brick house outside of the city, and Arthur joined us.

Sometimes when Arthur sees me, he kicks his legs excitedly and smiles, and I feel something watching.

Is it the Mothership? Did it send Arthur here?

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Chapter Nine - A Terrible Sunny Day

Today Marigold wanted to play Space Shuttle again, since our first mission was aborted by the alien attack, but my dad put his foot down and drove us to the cinema. He bought us large buckets of popcorn and shoved us into a semi-dark theatre full of strangers, ordering us to ‘enjoy ourselves.’

We’re sitting up the back and watching a movie about a group of jungle animals that like to break into song when they’re happy. I find my foot tapping along with the music. Marigold keeps whispering that the movie is too loud, because she has noise sensitivity issues. That’s why I made sure we got a seat at the back. But her foot is tapping too.

When it’s over we stumble out into the brightness, blinking and disorientated and smelling like popcorn. As my dad navigates the traffic he says, ‘I rang a riding school this morning. We’ve thought perhaps you could both start lessons together.’

Marigold and I exchange alarmed looks.

After we drop Marigold at her house we drive home, where Hannah is waiting for us. She’s put Arthur into his baby harness and straps him to my dad’s chest, ordering him to take him for a walk around the block to ‘get some sun.’ As they make their way down the driveway Hannah takes my hand and says, ‘Come with me, Ella.’

I think she’s going to make me a hot chocolate, but instead she leads me to my bedroom, where the box is once again sitting on the end of my bed. I realise Hannah has been taking it out from my hiding places and putting it there, as if hiding it away is a bad thing.

The sun is casting a patch of warmth on my bed. Hannah sits down and pats the space next to her, and I sit cross-legged in that circle of warmth as she takes the lid off the box and takes out the little blanket with the faded-rose smell.

‘This was your baby blanket, Ella,’ she says.

I touch it, but I don’t feel anything familiar.

Underneath the blanket are the newspaper clippings and some photos and a pair of knitted baby boots. They’re the same blue as my hair, and suddenly, I remember her kitting. She was in an armchair with a big blanket over her legs and pulled up to her waist and a beanie on her head, as if she was very cold. And she was saying; ‘I need to do something,’ as her needles clicked, making a scarf for my dad. And her voice was both frustrated and frail, as if she was very tired. Then the memory is gone, like the almost-faded smell of roses.

I can’t do this anymore. I place everything back in the box and put the lid on, and Hannah holds me close and hands me tissues, but doesn’t say anything as I remember my mother. And I remember her leaving - leaving me behind on Earth without her. And now I don’t feel right. I ache all the time inside, and I know part of me will always be waiting for her to come back.

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Chapter Ten - Peanut and I

The horses look down at us from their great height, both pairs of ears pitched forward and snorting warm breath over our faces.

Marigold tries to make a break for it, but her mum catches her expertly.

The riding instructor introduces us to the horses. There is Peanut, who is a chubby chestnut, and Peppermint, whose coat is dappled grey, like foamy beach waves. I’m handed Peanut’s reins and we’re told to ‘lead our mounts out to the riding arena.’

Peanut follows me agreeably. He has big dark eyes and large hooves that I stay clear of, so he doesn’t accidentally step on me.

Once I have my new riding helmet buckled on my dad tries to help me into the saddle, but the instructor stops him, fetching a plastic mounting block and showing me how to put my left foot into the stirrup and collect the reins and a bundle of coarse mane with one hand. Peanut waits patiently as I bounce around for a bit before launching myself into the saddle.

Once there I wait for the fear to surface. I’m so used to being afraid I’ve come to expect it. I feel my body stiffen.

Peanut shifts slightly, and I hear the sharp swish of his tail. He turns his head and regards me briefly with one eye, which is warm and brown and ringed with thick lashes, before looking forward again and taking a step as the instructor murmurs a word to him.

It occurs to me that Peanut and I are now in a strange partnership. I’m not sure he wants me on his back any more than I want to be here, but we’re stuck together for the next thirty minutes, and the least we can do is make our time pleasant. Hesitantly, I pat his warm neck.

‘Don’t make me fall off, and I won’t kick you,’ I say, hoping that he will somehow understand. I hold the rough leather reins gently and keep my heels still against Peanut’s sides. He lifts his head a little and we begin to walk around the perimeter of the arena as the instructor concentrates on Marigold, who’s trying to make herself hyperventilate. But her mother is firm, and Marigold is pushed into the saddle. The instructor leads Peppermint around the arena by her bridle, talking to Marigold in a low, soothing voice, as if she’s a frightened foal.

I tip my head up to face the sky and stare into the deep, endless blue. I wonder if my mother is watching me, from somewhere in that silent place. I wonder if spaceships fly past our planet, and if they sometimes stop, darting through our atmosphere and hovering behind clouds, just to see what we do all day. I think about Hannah telling me the Earth never lets anything go.

Then Peanut gives a little bounce under me and I clutch at his mane, reminded of our partnership. The fear I’ve been waiting for hasn’t surfaced, but I’m still nervous. Peanut tosses his head. He seems to be enjoying our ride and I gather my reins gently, because I’ve studied horses online and I’ve learnt that they are super-sensitive. I click my tongue and he goes a little faster, his tail swishing.

Behind me I can hear Marigold taking deep, calming breaths. Both our parents are sitting on the sun-bleached benches at the end of the arena, chatting about whatever it is that parents chat about - vegetables and flu shots and laundry, probably. The saddle creaks gently as Peanut strides around the big rectangle of the arena. Next week Marigold and I will be riding with a regular group.

It’s very difficult for me not to think of myself as an alien spy. What will I do now? What is the point of studying people and things, and learning about maths and history at school, if I can’t tell my mum about it all? 

When I asked my dad he said, ‘You can tell me, Ella.’

‘But you already know everything,’ I argued. And his eyebrows did a funny little dance as he said, ‘I don’t know everything.’

To test him, I said ‘Where is my mum?’

And he shook his head, his face creased with sadness. ‘She died, Ella.’

But how could my mother just … disappear? As if she’s nothing more than a cloud that’s forced to leave the sky when the sun sets? And if she’s really gone, why can I feel her watching me so closely? But before I could ask my dad these questions he changed the subject, and told me that one day we’re going to move into another house, because the one we have now is getting too small. I’m alarmed, because I have a suspicion that Arthur may not be enough, that other tiny, overbearing beings will crowd our home. I asked my dad if any of them will have blue hair, and he laid his hand on my head and said, ‘No. There’s only one blue-haired girl in the world.’

Behind me I can hear Marigold gulping her breaths down.

‘Don’t worry, Marigold!’ I call out, but softly, because horses have super-hearing and I didn’t want Peanut to think I’m shouting. ‘Look, it’s easy!’ And I drop my reins, lifting my arms and flapping them like a bird as I searched the sky again, because it’s true, it is easy. Not everything is, but I grasp Peanut’s mane, and say boldly, ‘Go faster!’

Peanut snorts in surprise, then bounces into a trot.

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