Blame This Guy

Hi there! 

I haven’t written in forever. I know. But see, I have this coworker. He’s very distracting. Because he’s super funny and totally adorable. And while I’m trying to get things done, all he wants is to take breaks and go outside and just have fun.

I try to ignore him. I tell him I have work to do. But then he smiles. His eyes light up. And I cave. Every. Single. Time.

How can I not?

Meet Augustus! A.K.A. Gus, Silly Goose, and the Demander of Attention. He’s a keeshond we welcomed into our family late last fall, and every day’s been an adventure since. This happy-go-lucky guy loves to chew, run, chase rabbits, frolic after butterflies, and, when he’s finally, eventually tuckered out, snuggle with his parents.
But probably his very favorite thing to do…is pounce on his little big brother. As you can see, now a year old and fully grown, he has an unfair advantage. Although his brother’s pretty feisty for a small, older pup, and doesn’t back down when the huge ball of fur comes barreling toward him!

Anyway, Gus is tons of fun. He contributes to an entertaining, unpredictable office space. But we’ve had a talk, and he understands that attention is to be shared. So moving forward, you’ll find more posts from me, more often.

Although they may look a lot like this:

But that’ll be his fault, too.


Watch Your Step Pub Day!

You know how your parents, grandparents and basically everyone with a few years on you is always talking about how time flies? I didn't always understand what they meant, but the older I get, the more sense it makes. Because it truly feels like I JUST sat down to email my agent a story idea about a good kid who's sent to a top-secret school for troublemakers—and now here it is, the official release day of Merits of Mischief #3, Watch Your Step

I had such fun hanging with Seamus, Lemon, Gabby, Abe, and Elinor again. This story brings them back to Kilter Academy for summer camp. But instead of participating in sports, arts and crafts, and other "normal" camp activities, the gang tries to solve the mystery of their parents, who are acting really strange. They also keep an eye on Mr. Tempest, Kilter's mysterious History teacher; watch out for Incriminators, rival troublemakers who may or may not pay them a surprise visit; learn some new troublemaking skills; and, of course, have lots of fun! 

The first chapter is below. I hope you enjoy!

Chapter 1
            It’s funny. Once upon a time, summer was my favorite season. Come June there was no school or homework, no alarm clocks or early bedtimes. There was only three whole months to do whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted. All year long I counted down to that stretch of freedom.
            But this summer? I wouldn’t mind skipping it. Because there’s what I want to do…and there’s what I have to do. And those are two very different things.
            “What can I get you, Seamus? Fish-stick pancakes? Fish-stick waffles? Fish-stick bacon? Fish-stick home fries? A bagel with cream cheese and fish sticks?”          
            It’s first day of vacation. Mom’s spiraling around the kitchen like a tornado in a cornfield. Dad and I are sitting at the table. He’s reading the newspaper and drinking coffee—the only breakfast item not featuring my favorite food.
            I’m waiting.
            Mom gasps. Spins toward the table. Waves a spatula like it’s a hundred degrees in here and she’s trying to keep me cool.
            “I know,” she says. “How about…a fish-stick omelette?”
            “Sure,” I say. “Thanks.”
            “Believe me.” Mom spins toward the stove. “It’s my pleasure.”
            I bet it is.
            “So, son.” Dad folds the newspaper and places it on the table. “Your first day off. Three free months ahead of you. Have you thought about how you’d like to spend them?”
            “Well, they’re not totally free. We’ll still have weekly homework.”
            Dad sits back like I’ve just sneezed without covering my nose. “But it’s summer vacation.”
            “And a great opportunity to sharpen our skills.” I sneak a peek at Mom. She stills at “skills,” then cracks another egg over a bowl. “It’s okay. I don’t have any other plans.”
            “Then we should make some. How about a few rounds at the Cloudview Putt n’ Play this weekend? Some quality father-son time? Just like the old days?”
            Dad gives me a small, hopeful smile. Behind his thick, black-framed glasses, his eyes are bright. So much has happened since the old days, it’s hard to imagine going back. But Dad didn’t do anything. None of it was his fault.
            “Okay,” I say. “Sounds fun.”
            “Wonderful! I’ll call when I get to the office and reserve a cart.”
            “You’re leaving?” Mom asks as Dad brings his dishes to the sink. “Already?”
            “The numbers won’t crunch themselves,” Dad says proudly.
            “It’s Seamus’s first morning home. Can’t you go in a little later?”
            “Sorry, my dear. But I’ll be back soon, and we’ll have a great night. Together. As a family.”
            I’ve just taken a bite of waffle and now force it down my throat. Not because it tastes bad—although I must say, despite being made with my favorite food it’s not my favorite dish—but because the thought of Mom, Dad, and I as a family, the kind that talks and laughs and plays board games, is so strange and unexpected, I almost choke.
            Dad kisses her cheek, then comes over and gives me a hug. When he’s gone, Mom catches my eye, quickly turns away, and continues cooking.
            This is it. We’re alone. For the first time since Christmas morning, when I found her in the attic, surrounded by boxes of—
            My K-Pak buzzes. I take the handheld computer from my shorts pocket and press the K-Mail icon.
            TO: shinkle@kilteracademy.org
            FROM: loliver@kilteracademy.org
            SUBJECT: hey
            Happy to be home. You?

            I smile at the five-word email. This is typical Lemon. The only thing my roommate uses less than syllables is exclamation points.
            I press reply.
            I look up.
            “I just remembered,” Mom says, emptying a frying pan. “I need to go to the dry cleaners. And the post office. And the grocery store. And the vet.”
            “We don’t have a pet,” I say.
            She drops the spatula. It lands on the floor with a thwack. “I think I read that they’re having adoptions today. Wouldn’t that be nice? To welcome an adorable puppy or kitten into our family?”
            Our family. It sounds even stranger coming from her.
            She steps over the spatula and places a plate of mushy eggs and seafood onto the table before me. “Don’t worry about the mess. I’ll take care of it when I get back.”
            My chin drops. This is easily the weirdest thing she’s said since she and Dad picked me up yesterday afternoon. Before I left Cloudview Middle School for Kilter Academy for Troubled Youth—or was yanked out of one and left at the other—I had a list of daily chores that needed to be completed before I did anything else, including homework. The first item on that list was making my bed. The second was cleaning the kitchen after breakfast. Skipping either was never an option. One time I was up late playing video games, overslept, and had eight minutes to get ready for school—and I still swept the kitchen floor and loaded the dishwasher, even though my breakfast was a handful of granola that I gulped down while sprinting to the bus, which I almost missed. Because another time, I forgot to wipe the table, Mom found crumbs, and I lost TV privileges for a month. After that I didn’t want to find out what she’d do if I skipped the task entirely.
            So why the sudden rule change? Like the morning fish-stick overload, is it meant to butter me up? Or distract me? Or make me forget what she did? 
            Hearing her hurry around upstairs, I return to my K-Pak.
            TO: loliver@kilteracademy.org
            FROM: shinkle@kilteracademy.org
            SUBJECT: RE: Hey
            Hi, Lemon!
            So great to hear from you. I can’t believe it’s been less than 24 hours since we left Kilter. It already feels like 24 days since you made Abe, Gabby, and me our last black-bean breakfast burritos of the semester.
            How are your parents? And your little brother? He must be really happy you’re home.
            Everything’s OK here. Different, but I guess that’s normal since I was away for so long. My dad and I already have some fun things planned, so that’s good. I missed him.
            But it’s still a little weird. I bet—

            There’s a loud bang upstairs. It’s so loud I jump in my chair. My thumbs shoot across the K-Pak screen. I accidentally send Lemon’s unfinished note. The sound’s followed by several smaller, quieter thumps. When I land back in my seat, I register where they’re coming from.
            The attic.
            Mom’s cell phone rings. It’s on the counter, next to her purse and car keys. I hurry over to it, glance at Dad’s smiling face on the phone’s screen, and tap the red rectangle to ignore the call. The ringing stops. The screen goes black.
            “Sorry,” I say.
            And I am. For sending Dad to voicemail before Mom can hear her phone and rush downstairs. For doing what I’m about to do, which is something I never would’ve done eight months ago—or anytime before I found Mom huddled in the attic, surrounded by Kilter Academy boxes.
            Most of all, I’m sorry for having that reason to do what I’m about to do. 
            Taking Mom’s purse and keys from the counter, I slip the key ring onto the long leather purse strap. I hold the strap near its ends at the top of the bag, raise my arm, and start making small, slow circles. When the keys stay in place in the middle of the strap, I lift my arm higher and make bigger, faster circles. Soon the strap’s whipping above my head like a lasso.
            As my eyes look for a target, my head fills with other images. I see the Cloudview Middle School cafeteria. A shiny red apple flying toward a cluster of fighting kids. Miss Parsippany, my substitute teacher, collapsing to the floor. A big, open field. A line of apple-headed mannequins defenseless against the archery arrows headed their way. An ancient school bus flying through the desert. Flaming paper airplanes.      
            Me, throwing the shiny red apple. Firing archery arrows. Hurling flaming paper airplanes.
            And then I select my current target. And the other images disappear.
            I spin the keys again, then snap my wrist. The key ring slips from the strap, sails through the air across the kitchen, and descends in a perfect arc toward the stove.
            Where it lands with a plop into a pot of fish-stick oatmeal.
            I put the purse back on the counter, careful to arrange the strap exactly as it was, then return to my chair and pick up my K-Pak. I’m reading about Kilter’s plans to expand the Kommissary, the school store, when Mom enters the kitchen a few minutes later.
            “Well, that’s strange,” she says.
            “What?” I ask, not looking up.
            “My car keys were right here.”
            “On the counter. Between my cell phone and pocketbook.”
            “Are you sure?”
            “Yes. That’s where I always put them.”
            “You must’ve put them somewhere else.”
            “I didn’t. I distinctly remember placing them here when we got home.”
            “Oh, well,” I say. “Guess you can’t do your errands now.”
            I peer over my K-Pak and watch her rummage through her purse. She turns the bag upside down and dumps its contents onto the counter. Her fingers tremble as she sifts through tissues and breath mints, loose change and coupons.
            “We can spend all day together,” I add. “Won’t that be nice?”
            Her hands freeze. They thaw a second later, and she throws everything that’s on the counter back into her purse.
            “No problem,” she says. “I’ll walk.”
            “Town’s four miles away.”
            “The exercise will do me good.”
            Taking her bag, she flies from the kitchen. The front door opens and slams shut.
            Still in my hand, the K-Pak buzzes.
            TO: shinkle@kilteracademy.org
            FROM: loliver@kilteracademy.org
            SUBJECT: RE: RE: hey
            Different how?
            Weird in what way?
            I press reply, start typing.

            TO: loliver@kilteracademy.org
            FROM: shinkle@kilteracademy.org
            SUBJECT: RE: RE: RE: hey
            You don’t want to know. Trust me.
            I wish I didn’t.


Happy New Year!

Hi, there!

I hope you're happy, healthy, and enjoying a great start to 2014. It's been a very, VERY snowy one here, and depending on which groundhog you believe, we're due for six more weeks of winter...or not. The fluffy white stuff is pretty—and great for productive writing days—but my fingers are crossed for an early spring!

As it's been a little while since my last post, I wanted to give you a quick update on what I've been up to lately. Writing-wise, I've been plugging away on a few different projects, both young adult and middle grade. I wrote and revised Merits of Mischief 3, and I've also been working on some new things. This has been an interesting experience, as it always is. Brainstorming new ideas and exploring new stories is fun and exciting, but picking the best one to plow full-steam-ahead on can be tricky. My agent and I have been working together to find the "right" project to pursue, and this has entailed a lot of writing (me), reading (her), and revising (me). But I think we have it now! The story's still in its early stages so I can't share too much yet, but I can say it's middle grade—and really fun to write.

Things have been quite busy in my non-professional life too! A few months ago we moved from our little cottage near the sea to an old farmhouse. Between packing, tossing, unpacking, and organizing, moving is always a chore, but this move was particularly challenging. Mostly because our new house required a bit of work before we could actually get in and start making it ours. But get in we did, and it didn't take long for it to feel like home!

Oh, another reason I'm looking forward to spring: gardening. I've never done this but have big plans for our new yard! Flowers, fruit, veggies—if there's a seed, I want to sow it. :) Any and all tips for turning my plain thumb green would be greatly appreciated!

We also took a few trips. We visited family in Florida, traveled to our favorite spot in the desert, and headed north for a few days. I'm a huge fall/foliage fan, and as I've spent a lot of time in New England over the years, going back always feels a little like going home. So that trip was particularly fun.

Speaking of fun, I now love football! Anyone who's known me a while, like all of my friends and family members, is very surprised by this, because up until two or three years ago, I never paid much (or any) attention. But my husband has always been a Giants fan, and with the help of his thorough, and often patient, explanation of the game, rules, positions, and everything else, now I am too! (I think the intrigue first started after watching Friday Night Lights, which made me interested in the players off-field, and it's just grown from there!) I do all sorts of things I never used to. Besides watching every Giants game, and a lot of non-Giants games too, I now watch ESPN and visit its website every day; check in with the Giants website every day; watch football documentaries; and read football books. My birthday was a few weeks ago, and one of my favorite presents was an Eli Manning jersey! I have to say, I never saw this interest coming, but I'm very glad it did.

So, those are some of my recent highlights! A few visual accompaniments are below. I hope to post more pictures—especially of my Adventures in Gardening—sooner rather than later!

Until then, Happy Early Spring! :)


Merits of Mischief: A World of Trouble Release Day!

When last we saw 12-year-old Seamus Hinkle, he'd just learned some very startling news about his substitute teacher, Miss Parsippany. A few months earlier he'd thrown an apple in the school cafeteria to break up a fight—and hit her instead of his target, bully Bartholomew John. Miss Parsippany had fallen to the floor, and before Seamus could find out whether she got up, he was shipped off to Kilter Academy, the best reform school for the country's worst kids (or so he thought).

But then, at the end of a fun yet confusing semester spent making amends, friends, and a little bit of trouble, Seamus receives an email from Miss Parsippany. Seamus is relieved but stunned. If she's well enough to write him, maybe he should've never been sent to Kilter Academy. Maybe he can go home, and to his regular school, again. Maybe his family, including his mom, who's been acting very strange, can start over. And they all can pretend like the past few months didn't happen.

But is that what Seamus really wants? Or would he rather continue training to be a professional Troublemaker so he can hang out with his new friends, Lemon, Abe, Gabby, and Elinor?

You can find out today! Merits of Mischief: A World of Trouble, the sequel to The Bad Apple, is now available. The first chapter is below. I hope you enjoy!

Chapter 1
            My face is melting.  The goopy blob that was my forehead is slipping south, its molten heat softening everything in its path.  I’m literally liquefying, right here, in the back parking lot of Shell’s Belles.
            Okay, maybe not literally.  That’d leave a pretty big mess, which is what I’m trying to avoid.  That’s why I’m still wearing this helmet when all I really want to do is rip it off what’s left of my head and chuck it in the Dumpster I’m hiding behind.
            “Soft as silk!  How do you do it?”
            A familiar voice crackles in my ear.  I sit up straight, swipe one hand across the helmet’s tinted face shield.  My view’s still fuzzy so I flip up the plastic, rub my thumb over the damp interior, and lower it again.  Through the small window I watch the teenager lounging in the purple salon chair.  He holds a gossip magazine in one hand and pets his hair with the other.  Grins at the young woman who stands over him with a comb and scissors, then at his reflection in the mirrored wall.  Raises his palm for a high five, and gets one.
            A good Troublemaker is an invisible Troublemaker.  That was the first thing Houdini, my math teacher, told me when he found me standing on a bench and waving both arms in baggage claim three days earlier.  Apparently, he missed his own memo.
            “What do you think about upping the cool factor?” Houdini asks.
            “The cool factor?” the stylist repeats. 
            “Like with a blue streak.  Or a lightning bolt.  Or a blue lightning bolt.”
            “You mean…in your hair?”
            Houdini laughs.  The stylist laughs.  I roll my eyes and settle back in the seat.  If I’d known he was going to get a makeover before doing what we’d come here to do, I would’ve asked to stay at the hotel.  Where there’s air conditioning.  A mini fridge.  Bottomless buckets of ice.
            I’m considering dunking my head in the dirty snow bank next to the Dumpster, ostrich style, when the bell above the back door jingles.  A woman walks out.  She wears a white velvet coat with a black fur collar.  Her blonde hair, newly done, forms a stiff half-moon around her head.  She pinches a cell phone between her thumb and pointer finger.  Against the parking lot’s gray backdrop, her red nails glitter like rubies.
            Or maybe even apples.  Perfect, shiny…powerful apples.    
            For a split second I picture the woman falling, her body slamming into the frozen pavement, her face twisting in pain.  The image is so vivid I start to stand, to go toward her.  But then I remember where I am.  Why we’re here.  And I stop.
            “She’s leaving,” I hiss into the helmet’s small microphone. 
             I listen for a response.  None comes.  All I hear in the earpiece is muffled chitchat and country music.
            The woman pauses by a shiny SUV.  I tear my eyes away and scan the salon’s windows.  They’re cloudy—but I can still see that Houdini’s chair is empty.
            “Target’s on the move,” I say, louder this time.  “Do you copy?”
            I hear guitars strumming.  Fiddles plucking.  Ladies giggling.  I glance back and hold my breath as the woman unlocks her car.  My responsibility for this leg of the mission is not to let her out of my sight—even if that means leaving Houdini behind.  So I slide forward.  I take the silver handles in both hands and place one foot on the kick-start lever.  I relax slightly when her cell phone rings, thinking I’ve won more time, but right after she answers it and gets in her car, the engine hums and brake lights illuminate.
            “Um, hello?  Houdini?  I know you’re busy, but the lady?  The one we’re following?  I think she’s about to leave.”
            The warmth of my breath combined with the heat radiating from my face creates a new, wet coating inside my helmet shield.  As quickly as I wipe it away, a fresh one forms.
            I can’t see.  I can’t see, and I’m supposed to drive this scooter, which resembles a fighter jet on wheels, through a strange town.  Across ice and snow.  Without drawing attention to myself or losing my target, who, given the way her tires are currently sending dirt and pebbles spiraling through the air, is in a hurry.  Worrying about this only makes my heart thump faster, which makes me hotter, which makes it even harder to see.
            I’m here because I’m the best of the best.  Because I can do things other kids my age can’t—or so I’ve been told. 
But it’s clear a mistake has been made.  Again.
            “I’m so sorry,” I say, watching the gray film before me thicken, “but you’ve got the wrong guy.  I can’t—”
            The scooter dips suddenly.  I drop both feet to the ground and squeeze the handles.  Houdini’s voice sounds behind me and echoes in my ear.
            “I don’t.  You can.  And winners never apologize.”
            The scooter bolts forward.  My boots skid across pavement.  I really hope this thing can be steered from the back seat, because if not, we’re about to become Kentucky road kill.
            “So I think I get it!” Houdini calls out.
            The scooter jerks to the left, then the right.  Fighting wind and gravity, I pull up my boots, find the foot rests.
            “Get what?” I call back.
            “The high maintenance!  My hair’s never looked this good!”
“Well, I don’t get it!  I thought we were supposed to stay invisible!”
            “We are!”
            “But you followed her inside!  And sat right next to her!”
            The scooter hits a rock.  We sail through the air.   Eventually, the scooter drops to the ground and speeds up again.
            “Sometimes being seen is the best way not to be seen!”
            This makes no sense.  I might point that out, but then we round a curve and tilt sharply.  My body’s pulled down and to the right.  I hug the bike with both legs.  Release my fingers, lean forward, and wrap my arms around the handles.  Close my eyes, even though it’s as dark as night inside my helmet.
            “I was one of the girls!” Houdini continues.  “I had to be—the supply closet was in full view of the rest of the salon.  It was safer to do that and win their trust than it was to sneak around.  We can’t get into trouble before we’ve made any ourselves!”
            I’m not sure how to respond, so I don’t.  We cruise along for several minutes.  I don’t ask where we’re going or what we’ll do when we get there, and Houdini doesn’t tell me.  All I know is what he shared when I woke up this morning: today we finish what we started three days ago.  And as soon as we’re done, I can go home…where a very different sort of trouble waits for me.
            “You’re up.”
            I blink.  A mental picture of Mom biting into a fat cheeseburger disappears.
            “So I am.”  I note that we’re no longer moving—and that I’m still vertical on the bike and not horizontal on the side of the road.  “Nice driving.”
            “Phenomenal, actually.  But that’s not what I meant.”
            I slide off my helmet and find Houdini standing next to me.  I peer past him to the small red house with white shutters.  I’ve spent fifty of the last seventy-two hours monitoring live video feed of the property’s occupants and activity, so I know the home almost as well as I know my own.  That, however, doesn’t make it any less strange to be parked behind a bush at the end of its driveway. 
            “Everything looks okay,” I say.  “Sounds it, too.”
            At which point a door slams.  A familiar voice yells.  High heels hit floor like bullets to a concrete wall.
            Houdini holds a purple purse toward me.  “Don’t worry.  I emptied it for its owner before filling it up again.”
            I take the bag.  Unzip it.  “You said you were getting weapons.”
            “I did.  You’re welcome.”
            I pull out a short, plastic tube.  Thanks to Mom’s endless pursuit of fuller, bouncier hair, I actually know what it is.  “A roller?  What am I supposed to do with this?”
“You’re the marksman.   You’ll figure it out.”
            Snow flurries drift around us, but a fresh layer of sweat spreads across my face anyway.  Houdini must notice because he steps toward me and offers more explanation.  
            “Bows and arrows?  Paintball rifles?  Water grenades?  They’re great, but generic.  They can do damage to anyone, anywhere.  If you want to make a lasting impact, it’s always better to personalize.”  He shrugs.  “Plus, try getting a metal Frisbee through airport security.”
            “Boomaree,” I mumble.
            I drop the roller back in the purse.  “Frisbees are for kids.”  This is something Ike, my tutor, told me back at Kilter.  “Boomarees are part Frisbee, part boomerang.  They’re for Troublemakers.”
            Houdini grins.  “You can rock this, Hinkle.”
            Can I?  Maybe.  In the past few months I’ve definitely done things I never thought I would.
But do I want to?
            A scream shatters the snowy stillness.  And just like that, I stop thinking and start moving.
            I put on the helmet, throw the purse over one shoulder.  I stoop then shoot forward.  As I run, I keep one eye on the ground and the other on the shadowy figures hurrying behind pulled curtains.  
            “IV in Q3.”  Inside my helmet, Houdini’s voice is steady yet urgent.  “ML in Q2—scratch that.  ML backtracking to Q1.”
            He must be watching the live feed on his K-Pak.  I translate quickly.  IV is Innocent Victim, also known as Molly, an eleven-year-old only child.  Q3 is Quadrant 3, or the bedrooms in the rear of the house.  ML is Mother Lubbard, our target.  Q2 is Quadrant 2, the combined living and dining room, and Q1 is Quadrant 1, the kitchen.
            I’m so busy decoding Houdini’s locations I don’t think about what they mean until I’m in the backyard, crouched beneath the living room window.  Through the lace curtains I watch Mrs. Lubbard storm from the kitchen.  Then I glance behind me to confirm that Mr. Lubbard is in his usual spot: the small woodshed, where he pretends to build bookcases while actually playing poker online.
            “D2 washed the white sweater,” Houdini says.
            I turn back.  “Wasn’t she supposed to?” 
            “The cotton cardigan, not the cashmere v-neck.  ML’s freaking because the sweater shrunk ten sizes.”
            “Then maybe she should give it to her daughter.  As a thank you for everything else Molly—IV—has done right.”
            “A good mother probably would.”
            But this, we know, isn’t Mrs. Lubbard.  After all, a good mother doesn’t treat her daughter like an overworked, underpaid employee.  She doesn’t demand that her indentured servant vacuums, dusts, mops, and scrubs every window in the house every single day, before the young girl’s even done her homework—and then punish her when she finds a rolled oat on the floor or a smudge on the glass.  And she definitely doesn’t do all this when her real priorities are spending hours at the salon, soaking in bubble baths, and recovering from the exertion with daily two-hour naps.
            Mr. Lubbard, of course, is no prize himself.  But he hides out mostly to get away from the missus, so if we fix her, there’s a good chance we fix him too.
            “ML and IV en route to Q4.”
            Houdini sounds even more serious now.  Once I translate, I know why.     
            Quadrant 4 is the basement. 
            “Copy,” I say.  And then I run.
            I reach the back door outside just as Mrs. Lubbard and Molly reach the basement door inside.  Mrs. Lubbard flings open the entrance to her daughter’s worst nightmare.  Molly’s back hits the opposite wall.  Her head shakes back and forth.
            I reach into the purse.
            Two shots.  One to break the door’s small window, and one to teach this mother a lesson she’ll never forget.  That’s all it’ll take.
            My fingers find what feels like a thick rubber band.  They keep digging until they hit the purse’s hardest, heaviest item, which turns out to be a jar of lime green goop.  On the way out, they snag something long and prickly.
            An elastic hair tie.  Pauline’s Pear Pomade.  A metal comb.  These are my weapons.
            “IV WW about to commence,” Houdini says.
WW.    Waterworks.  Molly’s about to cry.
I slip the hair tie around the jar.  Hook my left thumb on the elastic and
pull back the jar with my right hand.  Raise both arms.  Close one eye.  Aim.
            ML WW about to commence?”
            Mrs. Lubbard’s about to cry?
            I lower my weapon and lean toward the door.  Houdini’s right.  Our target’s face crumples as she holds out one hand, examines her fingers, and fans her eyes.  Molly steps toward her, concerned.
            “Now, Hinkle,” Houdini urges.  “Her defenses are down.  Take your shot.”
            I start to aim again—and then stop.  Because what am I doing?  Who am I to try to teach anyone—but especially an adult I’ve never even met—anything?  What do I really know about this family?  I know what I saw on video, but what about everything our cameras didn’t catch?  What if Molly was a total terror last week?  What if all that we’ve seen the past three days, all the yelling and fighting and demanding, is simply one desperate mother’s way of dealing with her out-of-control daughter? 
            Parent-kid relationships can be complicated.  I get that.  I’ve lived that.  And I don’t want to make this one any worse.
            “Start the scooter,” I tell Houdini, already running.  “It’s not happening.”
            “What do you mean it’s not—”  He pauses.  “You’ve got to be kidding.”
            “Nope.  Sorry.  I tried to tell you I wasn’t cut out for—”
            My earpiece must be malfunctioning.  I tap the side of my helmet.  “What?”
            “ML’s fingernails.  She pretended to give a flashlight to IV, and when she yanked it away, her nails brushed against the wall.  Her manicure’s ruined.  That’s why she’s crying.”
Houdini’s voice sounds different.  Not just serious.  Nervous, too.  It makes my feet slow beneath me. 
            “Now she’s yelling,” he continues.  “She’s got IV by the elbow.  She’s pushing her toward the stairs.”
My feet come to a stop.  I stand there and listen—to Houdini’s play by play. Molly’s whimpers.  Soon a door slams.  The deck shakes. 
            Molly falls silent.
            “She’s in the basement,” I say.
            “Yes,” Houdini confirms.
            “Where she can’t reach the overhead light.”
            “And she’s so scared of the dark she needs three lamps on just to fall asleep at night.”
            I take a deep breath.  “Get her out through the storm door.  I’ll take care of Mom.”
            When Houdini informed me earlier that I’d be the one teaching Mrs. Lubbard the ultimate lesson, and I asked how I was supposed to do that, all he said was that I’d know once the moment was right.  I didn’t believe him. 
            Until now.
            For the next ninety seconds, I don’t think about what I’m doing.  I just do it.  I follow along the side of the house, peeking in windows to monitor ML’s progress.  By the time she reaches the marble vanity in the bathroom, I’m in position, locked, and loaded.  As she sits on the velvet-cushioned stool, I slide open the window and take aim.
            The elastic hair tie makes for a stellar slingshot.  I use it to fire everything Houdini swiped from the salon, including Pauline’s Pear Pomade.  Nail files.  Curlers.  Cans of hair spray.  Combs.  Brushes.  I’m careful not to hit my target directly, but I don’t mind when the weapons fly around Mrs. Lubbard so fast she twists and turns and falls off the stool.  And while she’s not struck, the same can’t be said about her precious beauty supplies.  Jars of lotion break.  Perfume bottles shatter.  Tubs of powder shoot up and fall back down, releasing thick white clouds.  I discover a clump of bobby pins near the bottom of the purse and fire them at the small light bulbs framing the mirror.  I break all but one so that Mrs. Lubbard can see what happens next.
            A bottle of nail polish slams into the middle of the mirror.  Red liquid drips down cracked glass.  A note, scribbled in lipstick on a piece of hair foil, stays in place with fake-eyelash glue.
            Mrs. Lubbard is curled in a ball on the floor.  Her arms cover her head.  Her shoulders tremble.  She stays like that for a few seconds, then gets up slowly, tip-toes to the mirror, and leans forward to read the message.
            It’s pretty good, if I do say so myself.

            Think you pay a price to look nice?
            Not BEING nice can put you in the poorhouse.
            Make it up to Molly.  Or lose everything.

            Mrs. Lubbard stands up straight.  Presses the fingers of one hand to her lips.  Looks around. 
            By the time her gaze turns toward the window, I’m gone.