Believe it or not, the whole thing started with cookies.
Suzanne wasn’t supposed to be on cookie duty that day, was the thing. She’d already done her volunteer shift, weeks ago, and there were half a dozen other girls in the troop whose mothers had yet to take a turn. But everyone had one excuse or another, and Helen, who was new to being troop leader and kind of a pushover, had called last night to beg Suzanne for help.
So instead of enjoying a rare weekend morning to herself, Suzanne was hucking Girl Scout cookies outside the supermarket, in absolutely frigid conditions.
It wouldn’t have been quite so bad if not for the wind, which cut through all the layers she’d piled on and turned everyone’s hands and feet to blocks of ice in minutes flat. She even had to send the girls inside in pairs for ten minutes at a time, to warm up a little. But she was the only adult, because Helen was a pushover, and there was no one else to mind the cashbox. She lost all feeling in her hands before they even got halfway to their sales goal.
Luckily a whole carload of white-haired old ladies mobbed the table, and got them a little further along. As Suzanne finished making change for the last of them, she realized that Jessica and Katie hadn’t come back outside yet, and they were overdue.
“Can you go in and tell the girls their turn is up?” she asked Lauren H. “Take Lauren M with you.”
“She already went! It’s my turn,” said Lauren G, who to be fair had been a champ about bagging up all those Do-si-dos for the old ladies, and who was turning a little blue under her pink bobble hat.
“Okay, tell you what, all the Laurens go in, and send Jess and Katie out,” Suzanne said. That still left her Julia, Nora, and both of the Stephanies, which was plenty
When they came out, though, they had someone with them.
“Mom!” said Katie. “This is the lady I was telling you about!”
Suzanne didn’t recognize the woman, or remember anything Katie had said about her, but Suzanne also was pretty sure she was cold enough to impair brain function, so it didn’t signify. “Hi,” she said. “Has my kid been bothering you?”
“Oh no,” the woman said. Gosh, but she was tall. “On the contrary. I’m told your troops require a combat instructor, and I have some experience I’d like to offer.”
“I’m sorry?” she said.
“Julia and Nora and Andi and two of the Laurens and I all agreed,” said Katie. “We want to take self-defense classes for the Sports Sampler badge. And Ms. Barda knows how to do really cool fighting! I know because she lives in the house behind Stephanie B and we saw her practicing in her backyard with a real sword .”
“It was just a practice sword,” said, apparently, Ms. Barda.
“Oh!” said Suzanne. She remembered now. Katie had told her while she was on the phone with the office and trying to do laundry at the same time, and she’d had the vague impression that Katie was describing a movie she and her friends had watched together.
Instead, apparently, she was talking about a real person. Who had a practice sword.
“Well, we’re always looking for volunteers,” said Suzanne. “Do you have any experience working with kids?”
The woman looked thoughtful. “Not such small ones, no,” she said. “But I have certainly taught young women to fight.”
“Great!” said Suzanne. “There’s some paperwork, but I’ll put you in touch with our troop leader and she’ll walk you through it. Oh, and I’m Suzanne.”
She offered a mittened handshake.
“I am Barda,” Barda said -- so it was a first name, apparently. She certainly had a firm handshake. Suzanne couldn’t imagine how she wasn’t freezing, in just jeans and a turtleneck sweater, but she didn’t seem bothered by the cold at all. “My husband and I are new to the neighborhood. Now, may I purchase some cookies? Your troops have told me that they are delicious, and I believe I have a friend who may enjoy a gift of them.”
“Very good, Lauren!” Barda said. The Lauren in question beamed at her, having neatly broken Nora’s hold, and tumbled her opponent to the mat. Nora sprung back to her feet, and the two children reversed their positions, so that Lauren could attempt the hold and Nora could attempt to break it.
Barda surveyed her trainees with a rueful sort of satisfaction. If her Female Furies could see her now! This was a far cry indeed from Barda’s former domain: a two-car garage, emptied of vehicles, its floor covered with bright blue mats. Her charges, not a one of them yet past her twelfth year, attempted blocks and throws that any child of five, back on Apokolips, would have long since mastered -- or else perished.
But these were children of Earth. And while Earth was by no means a safe place for all its children, in Bailey, New Hampshire, the ability to fight was no more vital than any other skill these girls sought to master. Their lives did not depend on it. All they would gain, as reward, was another brightly embroidered patch for the sashes they wore, to go alongside the markers for mastery of such Earthly skills as Outdoor Cooking and Scrapbooking and Citizenship.
It was exactly what Barda had hoped for, in coming here. Peace, and ease, and the chance to live without fear. A place where combat could be a game for children, and not a matter of life and death.
That did not mean, however, that Barda would allow such poor form as the elder Stephanie was demonstrating. She corrected the girl’s stance, and had her repeat the kick she was practicing until it was satisfactory.
Another half-hour, and the door to the adjoining house swung open. “Okay, girls, time to wrap it up!” said their hostess. Claudia set down the tray she bore, and the girls swarmed it to claim their orange slices and boxed fruit juice. “We’ve got grown-up snacks in the kitchen, c’mon,” Claudia said, and Barda followed her inside.
“Thank you, Ms. Barda,” the troop chorused.
The garage opened onto a mudroom, where the girls’ winter boots and coats lay jumbled in a vivid pile of pinks and purples. The house itself was, so far as Barda could tell, typical of its kind: there was little difference between it and the houses of her other neighbors. Perhaps Suzanne’s home was a little more cluttered, and Helen’s a little larger, and so on. There were subtleties Barda was missing, she was certain, but they would reveal themselves to her in time.
In the kitchen, she was greeted by the mothers of Julia and Amanda, and the father of Katie, who had once been married to Suzanne but was now wed to Claudia. He was attempting to coax a spoonful of some mushy green substance into the mouth of a round-cheeked little boy, who did not seem pleased to be offered it. “How’d it go?” he asked.
“Very well,” said Barda. She did not stand at attention, though long-ingrained habit tugged at her to do so. “They learned to block a new hold today, and Stephanie R tells me she has asked her mother to enroll her in judo.”
“Well, that’s nice,” said Claudia. “Doug, it’s meant to go in his mouth, not down his front.”
“No!” cried the little boy, smacking his hands on the tray before him. “No, no, no!”
Barda frowned, and crossed the room, dropping to a crouch to bring herself to eye level with the child.
“You should not refuse your dinner,” she told him.
He stared at her, wide-eyed, and Doug took advantage of his distraction to pop the spoon into his mouth.
“I don’t know how you do that,” said Julia’s mother. “Mine would still be yelling.”
“I think it’s the tone,” said Amanda’s mother. “Barda, weren’t you in the military or something?”
“Something like that,” Barda agreed. “In Canada, where I am from.”
Doug and Claudia invited her to stay for dinner, but Barda refused. “I’m afraid I have plans,” she said. “I appreciate the offer, though. Perhaps another time.”
Finally, after the girls had all been divvied up into their various carpools, Barda walked home through the quiet streets of her neighborhood, to the home where she and Scott lived in peace and safety.
She let herself in by the back door. They had no mudroom, and Barda did not want to trail dirt and slush through the front of the house. She deposited her boots in the basket she had placed there for that purpose, and went into the kitchen to fix herself some hot chocolate.
The phone rang. Barda ignored it.
The phone rang again. And then an insistent beeping filled the air.
Barda sighed. She opened the drawer next to the refrigerator, and took out her communicator.
“Yes?” she said.
“Sorry, honey, I know you had plans today,” said Scott. He sounded out of breath. “But I could use a little backup, right about now.”
“That’s all right,” Barda said. “I just got home from Scouts. I won’t be long.”
“Thanks,” Scott said. She could hear a series of crashes in the background. “Love you!”
“Love you, too,” she said, and hung up, and went to go get her Mega-Rod.
Suzanne spent most of that spring seriously considering a coup.
It wasn’t that she had anything against Helen, who was a sweetheart and really did try her best to keep everything happy. The problem was that “keep everyone happy,” for Helen, usually ended up meaning “cave to whoever complains the loudest.” That had never been too much of a problem, before Heather joined the troop.
Suzanne had nothing against Heather. She was a sweet girl, and so shy that Katie said she hardly even spoke in meetings half the time. The other girls all seemed to like her fine, and did their best to make her feel welcome. It wasn’t Heather’s fault; she was a kid, and kids didn’t choose their parents.
Which was lucky for Marjorie, because Suzanne couldn’t imagine choosing Marjorie for a parent.
Marjorie had a an ash-blond perm that never strayed out of place by so much as a hair. Marjorie took charge of anything she got within a hundred feet of. Marjorie had very definite ideas about what was and was not appropriate for girls in a Scout troop to do. Marjorie made scathing remarks about single mothers and then added “oh but I don’t mean you , dear,” when she very clearly did. Marjorie dressed like she’d been shopping Nancy Reagan’s yard sale.
Marjorie had effectively taken over as troop leader, and nobody was happy about it -- but nobody was brave enough to take her on, either.
“How was Scouts today, honey?” she asked Katie.
Katie shrugged, and poked at her broccoli experimentally. “It was okay. Kind of boring.”
Under Marjorie’s reign, the girls had been steered away from any activities that couldn’t be done sitting down. She’d come up with all sorts of convincing reasons for it: there was a Superfund site too close to their favorite hiking route, and archery was just too dangerous, and canoeing should really wait for better weather, shouldn’t it? So now the girls were doing embroidery and watercolor painting instead, and chafing under the new regime.
It was lucky the girls had already earned their Sports Sampler badge, because Marjorie probably would have found an excuse to put a stop to those self-defense classes they’d done, too. Which would have been kind of a sight to see, wouldn’t it? Suzanne couldn’t imagine Marjorie steamrolling over someone like Barda.
Well, hey. That was a thought. And the campground was already paid for, so Marjorie probably couldn’t find a way to cancel it.
When Suzanne swung by their house that weekend, Barda’s husband answered the door. “Oh, hi,” he said. “It’s -- Suzanne, right?”
“Hi, Scott,” Suzanne said. She was still a little surprised by Barda’s husband. When they first met, she’d been expecting some kind of seven-foot-tall lumberjack, not a cheerful, easygoing guy half a head shorter than his wife. Not that Suzanne was in any position to judge compatibility, given that she once thought it would be a good idea to be married to Doug.
“Looking for Barda?” he asked. “I’ll go get her.”
“Here’s the thing,” said Suzanne, once she and Barda were settled in the living room. Barda had offered her lunch, but Suzanne had turned it down. Barda wasn’t a bad cook, as such, but she seemed to have some very strange ideas about seasoning. Her food sometimes tasted like she’d had the idea of the dish explained to her, and then started over from scratch.
“We’re taking the girls camping over spring break, and I was wondering if you’d like to come along. I know they’d love to see you again, and I’m sure you’ve got -- oh, I don’t know, some wilderness survival sort of things you could teach them, right?”
“I suppose so,” said Barda. “Survival, certainly.”
“There wasn’t a lot of wilderness where we grew up,” said Scott, as he passed through en route to the kitchen.
“Really? I thought you were from Canada,” said Suzanne.
“We are!” said Barda. “We certainly are. It’s not all wilderness, though. There are many cities in Canada.”
“Oh,” said Suzanne. “Well, that’s fine. You don’t have to do it, of course.”
“No, I’d like to,” said Barda. “I would enjoy seeing the troop again. Are there any new girls?”
“Just one,” said Suzanne. “And that’s the other thing.”
“I think that’s everything,” said Barda.
“Are you sure?” said Scott. “That tent seems awfully flimsy.”
“It’s Earth-made, they can’t help it,” said Barda. “I’ll be fine. It’s not as though there’s anything in the New Hampshire state parks that could hurt me.”
Scott conceded the point. “Still,” he said. “You’re bringing your Mega-Rod, right? Just in case.”
At the campground, Barda set up her tent -- the others had not yet arrived -- and decided to go for a walk. It was an early spring for the region, a bright and sunny day with only a little bit of chill lingering in the air. Even an ordinary human would not have been troubled by it.
When she returned, the camp was in something of a state of chaos. Helen, the nominal leader, looked so frazzled as to be near tears, and several of the girls seemed upset about one thing or another. They all brightened upon seeing her, though, and began to clamor for her attention.
“Yes, hello -- I’m glad to see you too -- you do look taller, I agree--” Barda said. “Have you all kept in practice, since our last lessons?”
Most of the girls looked abashed, to varying degrees, but Amanda, Andrea, and Nora insisted they had, while the younger Stephanie announced proudly that she was about to move up a level in judo.
“That’s wonderful,” said Barda. She turned to the smallest girl, the one who was not yet known to her. “And who is this?”
“Um, hi. I’m um. Heather.” She blinked nervously up at Barda from behind a large pair of glasses, her voice scarcely above a whisper.
“Heather! Stand up straight,” an imperious voice demanded, from somewhere behind Barda. “And stop mumbling!”
Instead, the girl seemed to shrink further. Ah , thought Barda. This must be Suzanne’s nemesis. She pinned a false smile on her face, the one she’d learned at Granny Goodness’ knee, and turned to greet the dreaded Marjorie.
“Oh,” the woman said, looking Barda up and down. “You must be Barbara.”
“Barda,” she corrected. “I don’t believe we’ve met.”
“No,” she said. She offered a handshake; her nails were long and carefully shaped, lacquered with pale pink polish. “But I’ve been hearing about you all day. Marjorie Noble. This is my daughter, Heather.”
“A pleasure,” said Barda. Ordinarily she was very careful, when shaking hands with humans, so as not to crush the fragile bones in their hands. But Marjorie seemed intent on proving her strength against Barda’s, so she allowed herself a little of her own true strength.
Marjorie’s fixed, brittle smile, did not change.
Well, that was interesting.
Katie decided, at the end of the first day, that camping trips were her favorite thing in the entire world.
They got to go on a hike, and Andrea taught them show tunes from when she went to New York for her birthday, to sing as they marched. They went fishing, and Lauren M caught a huge fish that she insisted on throwing back because she was a vegetarian. Nora’s mom taught them how to read trail markers, and Barda taught them how to make snares just out of stuff they found in the woods, and they saw three deer moms with tiny, wobbly deer babies. Jess even got Heather to laugh at her jokes. It was the best.
For dinner they cooked hot dogs on sticks (plus veggie dogs, for Lauren M) and wrapped potatoes in foil to bake in the campfire. Stephanie R’s mom led them in a singalong, and they played charades, and then they stuffed themselves on s’mores and baked apples until no one could eat another bite.
(Except for Heather, who looked longingly at the last baked apple until her mom said it wasn’t ladylike to eat too much dessert.)
Katie wanted to tell ghost stories around the campfire, after that, but Heather’s mom said it would be too scary. So once they were all zipped into their tents for the night (Heather and her mom had their own tent), Katie got out her flashlight and put it under her chin, and she and Andrea and Julia and Lauren H did their best to scare the bejeezus out of each other.
“But the old man said ‘what do you mean? Our only daughter died twenty years ago,’ and the driver realized that all along, his passenger had been -- a ghost,” said Julia.
“Aw, that wasn’t scary,” said Katie.
“I liked it,” said Andrea.
“Did you hear that?” said Lauren.
“Ha, ha, very funny,” said Katie, but then she heard it too -- there was something moving around outside.
“Do you think it’s a bear?” asked Julia.
“No, we put all the food in the bear-proof bag,” said Lauren.
Katie switched off the flashlight. “Shh,” she said. “Unzip the tent a little, and we’ll look.”
They unzipped the tent from the top, just enough to peek through -- and sure enough, there was something in the woods beyond the campsite.
“No way ,” said Andrea. “I think it’s Bigfoot!”
In the morning no one believed them, of course. Both of the Stephanies agreed that it must have been a bear, and Nora’s mom said they were probably just imagining things, and Heather’s mom said that if it was a bear they should go home early because that was dangerous. Heather didn’t say anything at all.
Barda, who was practically Katie’s favorite grown-up in the world after her mom and dad and Claudia and her art teacher, Mrs. Roubicek, went looking carefully through the part of the woods where the Bigfoot had been. When Katie and Lauren H went over to ask her what she was doing, she ushered them over to a spot between two big trees, brushed some leaves out of the way on the ground, and revealed several enormous footprints.
“I think it best we keep this to ourselves, for now,” she said. “But be alert.”
Katie and Lauren agreed -- cross their hearts and hope to die -- but of course they told Andrea and Julia, since they saw the Bigfoot too. And Andrea told Nora, because they were best friends, and Julia told Stephanie R, because they played soccer together, and by end of the day everyone knew except for the other grownups.
It was exciting, more than it was scary. Heather was the only one who really seemed frightened, but she was so nervous most of the time that it wasn’t all that different from usual. And even being scared didn’t stop her from helping, when Amanda suggested they set up some of the traps and snares they’d learned from Barda.
“Just in case,” Amanda said.
“But they’re only for small stuff,” said Lauren G.
“So we’ll make them bigger,” said Lauren M.
They used their free hour before lunch to do it, going all around the borders of the campsite.
By the time they went to bed, after cleaning up all the food and performing the sketch Jess and Andrea had written and putting out the campfire, Katie was tired enough that she had almost forgotten about the Bigfoot traps.
But about an hour after lights-out, when she was almost properly asleep, Julia shook her awake. There were noises outside again.
They peeked outside to see if the Bigfoot was back, and it was! There was a huge dark shape lumbering away from the campsite. “Think we’ll catch it?” said Lauren.
They didn’t. “I want to see where it went,” said Katie, but before she could unzip the tent the rest of the way, Andrea hissed at her and pulled her back.
There was a second Bigfoot, even bigger than the first one!
It marched off into the woods the same way the first one had gone -- but just after it passed out of sight, there was a huge crash, and a roar that almost sounded like a scream.
Almost before the noise had stopped, they saw Barda leap out of her tent and sprint off into the woods towards whatever had caused it.
“I think we got it!” said Julia, and they all scrambled to get their shoes on and pile out of the tent.
The other girls and Nora’s mom and Stephanie R’s mom had heard the noise and woken up too. Heather and her mom were nowhere to be seen, though: their tent was empty. There were still crashes and roars coming from the woods.
“We should go back down to the ranger station,” said Nora’s mom.
“We should look for Heather and Mrs. Noble,” said Stephanie’s mom.
“Well, I’m going to go help Barda,” said Katie, but she didn’t say it loud enough for the grown-ups to hear, and she slipped away into the woods without anyone seeing her.
She started having second thoughts once she got a little closer to the source of the noise, though. There was a weird, eerie light that didn’t seem to come from anywhere, until Katie saw that Barda was fighting the bigger Bigfoot, and the weapon she was holding -- some kind of baton, or a jumbo-sized magic wand, or something -- was glowing. Katie hid behind a tree and watched, wide-eyed.
Barda was still wearing her pajamas: flannel pants with ducks on them that were a little too short, because she was so tall, and a big lime-green t-shirt that said I WENT TO KOOEY KOOEY KOOEY AND ALL I GOT WAS THIS LOUSY SHIRT. She didn’t even have shoes on. And she was kicking Bigfoot’s butt.
She knocked the Bigfoot back with a kick just like the one she’d taught them in self-defense lessons, except that hers was way better. When the Bigfoot picked itself back up off the ground, there was a dent in the tree behind it.
“How dare you!” The Bigfoot said. It sounded like Chewbacca crossed with Cyndi Lauper. “How dare you lay your low, common human hands on me!”
“I am none of those things,” said Barda. “And I mean you no harm, but I will defend myself if you attack me again.”
The Bigfoot snarled at Barda. “You set traps for me, and call it self-defense?”
“They were not my traps,” said Barda.
“More lies,” said the Bigfoot. “Fine, then. If you’re not human, you’re another assassin, sent by the rabble who took my rightful throne. Do your worst. I’ve seen the others off; I can make short work of you, too.”
“My worst?” said Barda. “I don’t think you’re prepared for that.” There was a flash of light from the weapon in Barda’s hand, and suddenly her pajamas were armor instead: strange, bright-colored armor like nothing Katie had ever seen before.
Barda planted her feet, the same stance she had showed Katie how to use when she needed to hold her ground.
And then the smaller Bigfoot ran back into the clearing, throwing herself in front of the bigger one.
The smaller Bigfoot sounded like Chewbacca crossed with Cyndi Lauper too, but underneath that she also sounded familiar.
“Heather!” said Katie, and she ran out into the clearing too.
In the end, it was all sorted out with a minimum of violence.
Marjorie stood down, once her daughter was at risk. Heather tried to explain, her voice faltering under Barda and Katie’s attention, and after a few minutes of her fumbling attempts Marjorie made a disdainful noise and spoke for herself.
“We’re exiles here,” she said. “I ruled our planet, before I was overthrown. My daughter is my heir, and so she is exiled here too. I assumed the worst, when I was caught up by your snares.”
“I told you,” said Barda, “they were not mine.” And little Katie, far bolder than Heather despite her size, spoke up, and claimed responsibility.
To tell the truth, she was a little impressed by the ingenuity the other girls had shown. They had attended her lessons well enough to improve on them, which was all a teacher could hope for, really.
“So you’re from outer space?” asked Katie of Heather. “Is that what you really look like?”
Heather shrugged, just as shy and awkward in her true form, though she was of a height with Barda and bore rather impressive claws. “Yeah. I get itchy, staying in disguise all the time, and I though since we were out in the middle of nowhere I could just -- go for a walk.”
“And just like I’ve told you, it wasn’t safe!” said Marjorie. It was strange -- knowing, now who she really was, Barda could clearly see the woman she had met in the nine-foot-tall creature standing before her. “How many times do I have to tell you? Now we’ll have to start over again, with new humans, and hope these ones don’t go running to some awful tabloid--”
“But I don’t want to move!” wailed Heather. “I’m so tired of moving, and hiding, and pretending to be a nice normal human girl, I’m no good at it at all--”
“I won’t tell,” said Katie.
“Really?” said Heather.
“Cross my heart and hope to die,” said Katie.
Barda had not known that the people of Earth could swear such oaths, but she was hardly going to do less. “I too,” she said. “Your secret is safe. This I vow, ‘cross my heart, and may I die should I break it.”
“How do I know I can trust you?” said Marjorie.
“If nothing else,” said Barda, “you know my secret, too.”
Heather and Marjorie reassumed their human guises, and Barda led them back through the woods to the campsite. Behind her, she could hear Marjorie grumbling to herself, and Katie whispering to Heather.
She didn’t wish to eavesdrop, but children being children, they were not discreet. “You’re a secret Bigfoot space princess!” Katie said. “That is so cool.”
“Um. It is?” said Heather.
“Yeah, of course-- ” said Katie, and Barda did her best to tune out the rest of it.
“I don’t know what you did,” said Suzanne, “but it seems to have worked.”
Barda had stopped by while Katie was at Scouts, and Suzanne was doing her best to ply her with coffee and cookies as a thank-you. Marjorie was still, well, Marjorie, but she was a lot easier to bear than she’d been before the camping trip. Heather seemed to be coming out of her shell, too, and she and Katie had declared themselves best friends.
“I can’t take credit for most of it,” said Barda. “The girls did a lot of it themselves.”
“Still,” said Suzanne. “I owe you one. I’m pretty sure Helen and the other moms do, too.”
“I am glad to have helped, however much I did,” said Barda. “I can’t say I like Marjorie any better than you do, but I think I understand her a little now. She’s trying to find a place here, and fit in. It’s not always easy.”
It seemed like Barda was speaking from personal experience. Suzanne was curious, of course, but she decided not to pry. If Barda wanted to tell her, she would, and in the meantime Suzanne would do her best to be a good neighbor.
After all, Suzanne had been a Scout once, too. And that meant, among other things, that she was supposed to be “a friend to all, and a sister to every other Girl Scout.”
Which Barda wasn’t, technically-- but so far as Suzanne was concerned, she counted.