Siblings Ilse and Wolf hide a deep secret in their blood: with it, they can work magic. And the government just found out. Blackmailed into service during World War II, Ilse lends her magic to America’s newest weapon, the atom bomb, while Wolf goes behind enemy lines to sabotage Germany’s nuclear program. It’s a dangerous mission, but if Hitler were to create the bomb first, the results would be catastrophic. When Wolf’s plane is shot down, his entire mission is thrown into jeopardy. Wolf needs Ilse’s help to develop the magic that will keep him alive, but with a spy afoot in Ilse’s laboratory, the letters she sends to Wolf begin to look treasonous. Can Ilse prove her loyalty—and find a way to help her brother—before their time runs out?
About the Author
Katherine Locke lives in a very small town outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, with her feline overlords. In addition to fiction, she writes about books and reading and has contributed to The Forward, The GayYA, Teen Librarian Toolbox, and other sites. The Girl with the Red Balloon was her YA debut.
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NEW YORK CITY, NEW YORK AUGUST 15, 1943
Sometimes, I thought I might drown in all the marvels of this world. Usually this happened when I saw planes flying and thought about all the engineering work and experimentation that had turned metal cylinders into modes of transportations and weapons of war. Sometimes this happened when I turned on the faucet and water flowed out, having been plumbed through a network of pipes designed by teams who'd thought about the past, present, and future needs of the city's residents.
Or, when I experienced the changing seasons, caused by the tilt of the earth. The idea that something off-kilter could cause anything as beautiful as the seasons regularly astonished me. Imagine how dull our lives would be if the earth had an upright axis, like a chandelier hung from the ceiling.
Today, the drowning happened because the sky was a wild sort of blue. The type of blue you could fall into, and when you tipped your head back, you'd only see blue in every direction. It was dizzying.
"Ilse," said Wolf, ever patient.
"Do you know why the sky's blue?" I asked him, squinting upward, even though Mama would have yelled at me about how my face would wrinkle and I'd never find a husband.
"You're going to tell me anyway."
He wasn't wrong. I suppose that's the thing about siblings. They know you like no one else does.
"Light," I said. "The blue light scatters farther from the sun's rays than red light."
"I'm going to pretend to understand that for the purposes of this experiment," Wolf said. "Do you think that light affects it?"
The last word pulled me out of my reverie and I looked down at him, blinking rapidly as spots splashed across my vision and the cone cells in the back of my eyes adjusted to the rapid change in light. Wolf came into focus in front of me, a frown crossing his face. He never used to frown this much, but he'd lost his sense of humor the day the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. So far, neither Hitler nor the Emperor nor Wolf's frown seemed likely to surrender.
"Magic doesn't appear to be affected by light." I thought about our prior experiments, the ones done in our rooms late at night after Papa went to bed. "But to verify that, we'd have to test under multiple weather conditions throughout multiple times of day, or expose something with activated magic to —"
"Shhh, Ilse. Keep it down." Wolf huffed, looking around with a scowl as if we weren't at least a hundred yards from the nearest person. "I still don't think we should be here. But since you insist, please stop saying that word so loudly."
I continued. "Different wavelengths. It's not a bad idea. We can add it to the list."
"We don't have a list," Wolf said, but slowly, as if he wasn't sure he was telling the truth or was trying to reassure himself we didn't have one.
But we did. Or rather, I did. I pulled the red notebook from my schoolbag triumphantly and tossed it to him. He caught it and flipped it open to the first page, where it said at the top, List of Things I'd Like to Test with Regards to Blood and Physics.
"Are you mad?" my brother hissed. "You're going to get caught."
"It doesn't say 'magic,'" I protested.
"It says everything but!" He shoved the notebook back into my bag. "You're going to be the death of me. Look, I promised you I'd help, and I'm not going to renege on that. But you promised to be done before dinner. Let's get this started."
Between the two of us, I was the scientist. Wolf was in the park with me because he didn't trust me not to get into trouble. I didn't mind because I wanted to use samples of both of our blood. I didn't know if there was a difference between how they acted on the magic, or maybe the magic in the blood acted on the equations. Either way, there were so many variables between us that it seemed silly to conduct an experiment by myself when he could help.
Wolf didn't like to talk about what our blood could do.
I could barely keep myself from telling everyone.
Magic. Even the word itself felt otherworldly, rolling around on my tongue. Some of the earliest uses of the word weren't about the creation, but about the act of creating. Magic. Creating something out of what appeared to be nothing. But matter could not be created or destroyed. Magic only acted on what already existed and what could exist given the right circumstances.
It'd been an accident, discovering the magic. But once I'd discovered it existed, it was hard to stop asking questions. Where did it come from? What could it do? Why did we have it? Who else had it? Were we the only ones?
"Ilse," Wolf repeated again, sighing, fingers snapping in front of my face.
"I know, I know," I said, even though I didn't know, and that was the part that had me distracted. My mind felt like a tornado. It spun up with all the questions I had.
Wolf sat down on a rock, rolling up his sleeves and setting objects next to us: a kite, two apples, a handkerchief.
I sat down next to him, unpacking our little kit. It'd taken awhile to assemble. We'd spent most of the last three years figuring out what we needed. I mean I spent most of the last three years figuring out what we needed; Wolf was happy to ignore everything. But he didn't bleed once a month, so this was less of an issue for him. He just needed to avoid blood loss.
And by blood loss, I mean he needed to avoid the war.
The only reason Wolf was at university was to get a deferment. Papa didn't speak to him for a week after he enrolled. He couldn't imagine why Wolf was avoiding the war — or running away from the family business. Wolf had come up with some sort of excuse that hadn't really mattered, but he'd suffered. It'd been the first time he was the child who stepped outside the carefully drawn paths of our lives. Our parents had given up on me when I did calculus in third grade.
"I know I've figured this out," I said.
"You said that last time," Wolf replied dryly. "Let's try not to let everyone see that we're drawing blood in the middle of the park, shall we?"
I glared at him, even as I drew the syringe and needle from the case that held them down. Our unclotted blood made things float, so little leather straps designed for pens kept the syringes in place. I'd taken a thoroughly unappetizing first aid class for girls interested in serving as nurses in the Pacific and in Italy, and while I'd managed not to puke directly on the instructor's shoes when he'd shown us a photograph of necrotic flesh, I'd managed to acquire the one skill I needed: how to do a blood draw.
One of my earliest experiments had shown that clotted blood was practically useless. I'd love to know how it got that way — was magic a particle interrupted by coagulation? — but I hadn't figured out how to study that in the laboratory at school yet. They were not fans of students experimenting on themselves for some reason, and it wasn't like I could explain why I had to use my blood and not the blood of a rat.
Unless rats had magic. I hadn't thought of that possibility.
Wolf opened his mouth, and I could feel my name forming on the air, even though that wasn't possible, according to science, and I said hurriedly, "Your blood or mine first?"
He wasn't going to tolerate many more distractions.
"Mine," Wolf said after a beat. "I don't want you to be lightheaded during this."
He held out his arm, fist turned toward the sky, and I readied the syringe, pressing down above his elbow so his vein filled up. I really didn't like this part, but it wasn't as though I had a choice. I slipped the needle into his vein, watching the blood fill to the top. Every now and then I missed, and the vein would blow, so I was always careful to see blood filling the tip of the needle before I drew back on the syringe. Dark-red blood flowed into the syringe, and when it had filled, I slipped the needle out of his vein, and he pressed his finger down hard on the crook of his elbow to close it off.
"Perfect," I murmured.
It'd taken me awhile to figure it out, but I had learned how to affix a paintbrush tip to a syringe, and I'd made a whole set of them. I screwed off the needle, screwed on the paintbrush tip, and bent over the kite, double-checking the equations I'd written down in my notebook.
"Got it?" asked Wolf, leaning over.
"You're blocking my light," I retorted. "Don't distract me."
"Fine, fine," he grumbled, sitting back. "I'm just trying to block the view of anyone watching."
"I think it's a form of narcissism to think anyone in this park cares what we're doing," I told him, painting slowly and carefully. I didn't want to make a mistake. It wasn't like I could erase easily.
"They think I'm fixing a kite."
"Ilse ..." Wolf began to say, his voice light and casual.
"We're just two teenagers in a park," I insisted. "There's a war, but people can still have lives, you know."
"Ilse," Wolf repeated, but this time I noticed the difference. He kept his tone airy in a way that it never was. "Someone's watching us."
I nearly rolled my eyes, but I needed to concentrate on the equation. He was so paranoid. "Call out to them. Say we're part of a cult, and invite them to join our ritual."
If I had a penny for every time he said my name like that, I'd be rich. I glanced up, paintbrush hovering. "Fine. Where?"
Wolf shifted, leaning back on his elbows casually as if surveillance was something he always did. "Two o'clock. With the hat."
I twisted, looking over my shoulder. Wolf snapped, "Not my two o'clock, your two o'clock."
"How was I supposed to know you'd already adjusted for my perspective?" I grumbled, turning back around for my two o'clock. I stopped grumbling when I saw the man in the tan suit lighting a cigarette beneath a tree, his hat resting on top of his head like he'd just set it there. He wasn't looking at us, but he still looked out of place. The other men in suits weren't wearing their coats. This man was. How he didn't notice the heat was beyond me. Sweat trickled down my brow.
I turned back to the kite. "Ignore him. He's just some stranger from uptown."
"We are strangers from uptown," Wolf reminded me.
We'd chosen to come over the Brooklyn Bridge to avoid running into anyone we might know, but to stay in a neighborhood still predominantly Jewish. Where people with our coloring and our hair and our builds wouldn't be bothered. It'd been Wolf's idea.
"I'm almost done," I said quietly, bending over the equation again, my hand moving precisely and swiftly. "I can't stop, or the blood will clot in the syringe."
"You have to stop," Wolf said out of the side of his mouth. "The result of this experiment will be the kite flying. It's not like he won't notice that."
"Yes, Wolf," I retorted. "Because kites are definitely not known for flying. How out of place that'll look!"
"There's no wind," he snapped back. "Ilse, he's definitely looking at us."
"How could he possibly know what we're doing?" I asked.
"I don't know, but it doesn't matter."
"We could be part of a Satanic cult."
"That's not really helpful right now. Ilse, put the paintbrush away. I'm taking it away from you."
"You wouldn't," I said, just before I saw the shadow of his hand cross over my equation. I yanked my hand away with a yelp, and the tip of the paintbrush, blood dripping off it, slid right through the equation on the underside of the kite. I saw the flames just before the kite ignited, the searing gash across the fabric curling with embers and then bursting into flames. The cotton caught quickly — Damn fabrics and their low flash points! Had the magic done that? — and in a second, all forty-six square inches of the kite were a blazing fire in my hands.
A hand on my shoulder ripped me backward, and I tumbled with a yelp down the small hill. I shoved myself upright and looked up to see Wolf dumping a thermos of water on the kite and stomping at it with his feet. For a brief moment, I wondered if the flames were magical, and if there was something I ought to be doing or writing with blood. But then smoke curled around his shoes as he stomped and the kite burned up, the flames dying down because there was nothing left to ignite.
The people in the park who had ignored us before stared at us, and the weight of their gazes made my stomach turn in on itself. Wolf was breathing heavily as he shoved his hand through his hair and then planted his hands on his hips, staring down at the kite and all the smashed parts of our kit on the ground. He'd be furious with me, and that knowledge made my heart hurt. I hated when he was mad at me.
I needed a moment to summon the courage to start back up the hill toward my brother and the wreckage. And I wanted to find the cause of the accident. I turned around slowly, scanning the park.
But the man in the tan suit was gone.
NEW YORK CITY, NEW YORK AUGUST 15, 1943
"I know you're mad at me," I said for the sixth time as we walked back across the Brooklyn Bridge, lifting my voice a little over the wind and the sound of cars below us.
"I'm not mad at you," Wolf said for the sixth time, but his shoulders were tense and he had his hands shoved into his pockets. He didn't even stop to linger over the ships passing below us, moving from the ocean to the navy yard and back out again.
"You are," I insisted.
He sighed, slowing and taking a hand out of one pocket to scrub at his face. "I'm worried, Ilse. That's different than being mad at you."
"About the guy watching us?" I asked. We hadn't seen him when we left the park, nor anyone else who seemed to be paying us any attention. Not that that seemed to matter to Wolf.
"Him," Wolf admitted. "And everyone else in that park who saw the fire. Ilse, I don't know what we're playing with here."
"I know," I said quietly, because this I did understand. I knew what we didn't know. Sometimes I thought that was the hardest thing about living in this world: knowing that I didn't even know what I didn't know. How could I find the right questions to ask to get the answers I needed to move forward, if I didn't know that information? How could I ... I didn't know why I wanted to move forward. Why there seemed to be a destination, a place to go, questions to be answered, but it felt like a new science. Something just beyond my fingertips. But maybe magic was like science. It was a horizon we'd chase and never reach.
Wolf elbowed me lightly, and I looked over at him, shading my eyes against the setting sun. "What?"
"We'll try again another night," he promised me, his voice all gentle, like he thought I might cry.
"We don't have to," I said, even though the words made my throat tighten.
"I don't need to know more than I know now," Wolf said. "But you do."
"It's just once a month," I said.
He shot me a dark look, his mouth twisting a bit. "I wasn't talking about that. I meant, you have an insatiable curiosity."
Sometimes Wolf had a way of complimenting me that made me feel small, even when he didn't mean it. Most of the time, he felt like my only ally, the only person who didn't act as though I was assembled wrong — too smart for a girl, big mouth, no manners, too short, too loud — and other times, he sounded just like our parents, like I was a burden. At university, they thought it odd that I was a girl with such curiosity, but they treated my girlness as if it was the wrong part, not my curiosity. My parents treated my curiosity as if it was my fatal flaw. And Wolf's words made me wince.
The thing was, I thought Wolf might have been insatiably curious once upon a time. I remembered him taking things apart as a kid, just to see how he could put them back together, and he used to read everything he could get his hands on, anything from instruction manuals to classics to philosophy books. But something in the last two years changed him. Maybe it was the war. Maybe that's what happened when boys grew up.
I missed the brother who didn't see my questions as a burden. I didn't want him to protect me from myself. I wanted him to be curious alongside me. But I didn't know how to say that without sounding childish and idealistic. And he still thought of me as a child, like there weren't a scant two years between us. Years that didn't used to matter.
"You can't always protect me," I told him. I aimed for flippant and fell short, my tone tripping into petulant and hurt. I swallowed hard against the tears and the things I didn't say — couldn't say — to him.
"No, I can't," he said as we walked down the steps of the bridge.
Excerpted from "The Spy with the Red Balloon"
Copyright © 2018 Katherine Locke.
Excerpted by permission of Albert Whitman & Company.
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