Odd Girl In
All I did was put a flaming bag of dog poop on Mr. McGuire’s porch.
He was supposed to stomp it out and get dog doo on his shoes, then maybe wave a wrinkly fist and yell Old People Gibberish. I’d seen it in the movies a hundred times.
Well, apparently Mr. McGuire hadn’t been to the movies in a while. Instead of stomping, he attacked the fire with his newspaper. But since he was old and slow, he barely tapped the bag and the newspaper caught on fire.
“Oh, crumb,” he muttered.
Mr. McGuire waved the paper around, but of course that only made the fire spread faster, until the flames were
bigger than his head. When I saw smoke coming from the wispy ends of his comb-over, I couldn’t take it anymore.
I jumped up from my hiding spot and raced across the lawn. Once I reached Mr. McGuire, I knocked the paper out of his hand and patted the sparks out of his hair.
“There,” I said, panting and stomping on the bag. “Fire’s out.”
Unfortunately, I kind of overlooked the burning newspaper that had landed on his porch sofa.
And that was how I discovered the flammability of wicker.
By the time I could act, the foam cushions on the sofa were already a charred black mass, and the frame was a miniature bonfire.
“Water, Alexis!” Mr. McGuire yelled at me. “We need water!”
I ran next door to my house and grabbed the garden hose. A few minutes later, the fire was gone, along with half of Mr. McGuire’s porch sofa. I couldn’t help feeling partly to blame. I also couldn’t think of a way to fix the situation.
Finally, I said, “Hey, at least your house wasn’t touched. That’s lucky.”
“Lucky?” Mr. McGuire growled. “I lost a sofa and my newspaper! Before I’d even finished the crossword!”
“You can have our paper,” I offered. “My dad only likes the Jumble and he …” I trailed off when I realized Mr. McGuire was giving me the evil eye.
“Alexisss.” He hissed my name, pointing a gnarled finger. “You did this!”
“Um …” I started to back away, but Mr. McGuire gripped my arm.
“This is the last straw!” He shuffled toward my house, pulling me along while I tried to explain.
“It wasn’t personal,” I said. “You’re just the closest house, and I didn’t want to carry a bag of dog logs down the street!”
Ignoring my explanations, he gave the bottom of our front door a swift kick. Then he howled in pain and glared at me. “Now look at what you’ve done! I broke my toe!”
My eyes widened. “But you just—”
The door opened and Dad appeared, towering over both of us. “Mr. McGuire.” He frowned when he saw me. “Alex, what’s going on?”
Mr. McGuire pushed his way in front of me. “Your daughter broke my toe and tried to light me on fire. That’s what’s going on, Professor Evins!”
To his credit, Dad merely frowned. “I’m sorry. How exactly did this happen?” He wrinkled his nose. “And what is that smell?”
“Oh! Sorry.” I stepped off the porch and dragged the bottoms of my shoes over the grass. “It was a Flaming #2. Parker bet I couldn’t leave one on someone’s doorstep.”
Dad groaned and called over his shoulder, “Parker! Get downstairs now! And bring Nick!” He smiled at Mr. McGuire. “Twins: If one’s involved, the other can’t be far behind.”
“Neither can their sister.” Mr. McGuire glowered at me. “She lit my sofa on fire!”
Dad held up a hand. “Wait…. I thought she tried to light you on fire.”
“She did.” Mr. McGuire leaned toward Dad conspiratorially. “And when she couldn’t succeed, she went after my furniture!”
I grabbed Dad’s arm. “It was totally an accident. I swear.”
I explained what happened, and Dad walked out onto our porch to see for himself. It only took one glance at Mr. McGuire’s sofa skeleton for Dad’s eyebrows to raise into his hairline.
“That sofa cost six hundred dollars,” said Mr. McGuire. “I expect you to pay for it.”
Dad made a choking sound in the back of his throat and nodded. “That’s … understandable. I’ll have a check for you tomorrow.”
Mr. McGuire shook his head. “Not good enough! I demand you send your rotten kids to one of those child labor camps. Or a sweatshop.” He sneered at me. “How would you like to make sneakers for a dime an hour?”
I looked up at Dad, who gave the slightest shake of his head. “Mr. McGuire, the punishment will fit the crime. I can assure you. And I want to apologize for what happened, as do my children.” He turned to Nick and Parker, who had been staring daggers at me from the staircase. “All of them.”
My brothers were high school freshmen and hated being called children, but the tone in Dad’s voice meant there was no arguing.
“Sorry, Mr. McGuire,” said Nick.
“We apologize,” added Parker.
Dad nodded at me, and I sighed. “I’m sorry too.”
Mr. McGuire’s mouth moved for a moment, like he wanted to say something else, but he just grunted and walked away.
“Have my money tomorrow!” he finally managed.
We watched him totter up his sidewalk, and I turned to Dad with a grateful smile.
He didn’t smile back.
“My office. Now,” he said, including my brothers in his ominous gaze.
Bowing my head, I followed him through the house. Nick and Parker fell into step behind us, and Parker pushed me so that I almost stumbled into Dad.
“Nice going, pyromaniac,” he said. “Can’t you follow simple instructions?”
“I don’t know.” I glared at him. “Tell me to push you off the roof and let’s see what happens.”
“Both of you shut up before you get us in trouble.” Nick grabbed Parker and me by our necks and squeezed. Since I was a scrawny twelve-year-old girl, I flinched and went quiet. Since Parker was built like a scrawny twelve-year-old girl, he did the same.
“I’m afraid you’re far past trouble,” said Dad.
He sat at his desk and gestured for the three of us to sit in the two chairs on the opposite side. Nick automatically got one of the seats because he was bigger and stronger, while Parker and I got into a slap/push/pinch fight for the other one.
“I’m older than you. I get to sit,” said Parker.
“There’s not enough room on that chair for you and your hair,” I said.
My brothers and I all have blue eyes and dark hair, but Parker has dark, bushy “genius” hair, which he claimed separated him and Albert Einstein from the “regular” smart people. When he wasn’t tangled up in schoolwork,
he was tangled up in the shaggy madness on his shoulders.
It took a couple of minutes for us to realize that Dad was watching us silently, and Nick had his head buried in his hands. Even though I didn’t want to, I let Parker have the chair and sat against the bookcase.
Dad cleared his throat. “That behavior you just displayed is part of our problem. The three of you should be working together, not constantly bickering.”
“But all brothers and sisters fight,” said Nick. “It’s on television and in the movies. It’s a normal part of life. Brothers even fought against each other in wars!”
Parker might have been the smarter twin, but Nick was usually the voice of reason. Unfortunately, Dad wasn’t interested.
“And did all these other siblings earn cruel nicknames from the neighbors?” he asked.
“Hey, only Mr. McGuire calls us the Evil Evins,” I spoke up from the floor.
“And technically, it should be Evinses,” said Parker. “Because the plural, uh, doesn’t really matter.” He shrank back as Dad got out of his chair and paced around us.
“Alex,” Dad said without looking at me. “Why on earth did you pull a dangerous stunt like that?”
“Nick and Parker made me do it,” I said. As soon as the words were out, I regretted them.
Dad spun to face me. “I’m sorry. You said your brothers made you do this?”
Dad was a philosophy professor at the university and the world’s biggest supporter of free will (the idea that people always have a choice). He even had T-shirts made for his students with FREE WILL TO GOOD HOME
. printed on them.
“They said that if I didn’t drop the Flaming #2, I was just a little girl,” I said. “I had to defend my honor.”
“Alex,” said Dad in a low voice, “you are a little girl. And you two”—he pointed at my brothers—“are bad influences. I hold you just as responsible for what happened tonight.”
My brothers shouted in protest at the same time I argued, “I am not a little girl! I’m in junior high!”
“Quiet!” bellowed Dad.
It’s pointless to argue when you’re up against those lungs.
“I’ve been thinking about this for a while now,” he said. We watched him pull a handful of junk out of his pocket before he found a wadded-up tissue to wipe his reading glasses with. Then he had to search for those.
Dad was endlessly disorganized. If it wasn’t for our housekeeper, his office would be an explosion of papers, magazines, and really heavy books. But he assured us that his external chaos was the perfect balance to his incredibly focused mind. I believed him most of the time, except when he called me Parker.
We found the glasses in his raincoat pocket, and Dad rubbed them clean before slipping them on.
“Every week the three of you seem to be in some new sort of trouble.”
“Well, Nick and Parker—,” I started, but Dad cut me off.
“Do not control you. They have, however, been unusually strong influences in your life. Do you know why?”
I knew why, but I couldn’t tell Dad.
Because it involved Mom.
Both my parents had taught at the same university. That’s where they’d met, Dad falling for Mom way before she noticed him. She was always so wrapped up in research, Dad joked about juggling knives just to get her attention. It probably should have been a sign, but he didn’t realize it.
My brothers and I had awkward childhoods. Mom would give us IOUs for family time and hire strangers to run our birthday parties. Then, when I was seven, Mom received a grant from the National Science Foundation and headed to Bermuda for six months. Her research was so successful that the time stretched into a year, and then it became indefinite. She sent us a note, along with a batch of birthday and Christmas checks, saying she couldn’t leave her research to lesser minds and that we’d be better off.
It might have been easy for her, but the rest of us were devastated. Nick gave up on his schoolwork entirely; Parker
wouldn’t do anything but schoolwork; I refused to eat, preferring to cry and swivel in Mom’s old chair.
Until one night, when I caught Dad doing the same thing.
That was when I knew I needed to be tough … for myself, my dad, and my brothers. It made things easier if I was just one of the guys and not a small reminder of Mom.
So when Dad said, “Do you know why?” I shook my head and simply asked, “Why?”
“Because you don’t have enough discipline.” He turned to my brothers. “None of you do.”
“Maybe we would if you were around more,” grumbled Parker.
That was another thing: When Mom left, Dad picked up her old habits, hiding in his office and burying himself deep in philosophical books. Of course, my brothers and I weren’t worried about him leaving. Dad could never even find his socks for one day, let alone pack for a six-month expedition. Still, Parker had a point.
Dad’s face turned slightly pink and he wandered back to his desk. “Unfortunately, someone has to feed this family and pay for barbecued couches.”
Nick, always the quickest of us to stop trouble, pulled his chair closer to Dad’s desk. “We know you’re busy, but when we’re on our own something bad is bound to happen.”
Dad stared at his desk for a moment before looking up.
“Well, it’s time to put a stop to that. I want each of you to reach your full potential.” He opened his desk drawer and pulled out a stack of green pamphlets, handing them to Nick. “And this is the best way.”
I frowned at the pamphlet Nick gave me, already dreading what was inside. The cover featured a smiling gold star in a blue T-shirt, one of my biggest pet peeves. It was my firm belief that nothing but a person should ever wear clothing. A star in a T-shirt made as much sense as a poodle in a prom dress.
Above the obnoxious star appeared the word CHAMPS
! in bright, bold letters. I opened my pamphlet to the next page and was instantly struck by the image of six girls in a human pyramid.
“Cheerleading?!” I cried. “You think my full potential is a … a set of pom-poms and a high kick?”
I turned to my brothers, who looked just as horrified.
“No, no, no.” Nick shook his head with enough force to make me dizzy. “I can’t be a cheerleader and date them! Plus, I don’t have enough rhythm for all the clapping!”
“And cheerleading instantly reduces your IQ one hundred points,” said Parker. “I’d still be okay, but Nick and Alex—”
“It’s not cheerleading.” Dad ran his fingers through his hair. “Would any of you like to actually read the pamphlet before you jump to conclusions?” 11
So we did. I sat on the edge of Dad’s desk and skimmed the text.
“Welcome to Champs!” I read aloud, making sure to give the last word plenty of sarcastic energy. “The best investment you’ll ever make for your child.”
“I thought college was the best investment,” interrupted Parker. He paled to the color of cafeteria tuna and looked at Dad. “Are you sending us to cheerleading camp instead of college?”
Dad groaned and rubbed his temples. “For the last time, this has nothing to do with cheerleading.” He gestured vaguely in my direction. “Alex, keep reading.”
“Our life-skills course is designed to turn your bright, shining child into a bright, shining star. In just four short weeks—” I interrupted myself this time. “Four weeks?! This torture is going to last a month?”
“It won’t be torture,” said Dad, taking my pamphlet and turning the page. “Look at all the fun activities, like … Adventures in Organization. Adventure, Alex!” He waggled his fingers in front of me, trying to make it exciting.
I rolled my eyes. “Dad, anything sounds fun if you put it that way.” I waggled my fingers like he had. “A magical trip to the dentist!”
Parker snorted. “She’s right … for once.”
“Yeah,” said Nick. “There’s no adventure in organization.
I cleaned my locker on Friday, and I’m pretty sure nothing exciting happened.”
Parker nudged him. “You found that dollar.”
Nick brightened. “Oh yeah.”
I shot both of them a dirty look, and Dad smiled. “There, you see? Being organized paid off … literally.”
“But, Dad,” said Parker, “I already have all these skills. I shouldn’t have to go.”
“Really?” Dad crossed his arms. “How long did you spend on your hair this morning?”
“I …” Parker leaned back, covering his hair protectively. “The same amount of time as always.”
Dad raised an eyebrow. “Which is …”
“Forever.” I couldn’t help chiming in. “I can get dressed and eat breakfast before you’re done.”
“I can get dressed, eat, and brush my teeth,” said Nick.
Parker glared at both of us, and Dad cleared his throat. “I think you could use a little more time management.”
“And a little less hair gel,” I added.
Parker lunged for me, but Dad pushed him back into his seat.
“The class is every Tuesday and Thursday, and you start this week,” said Dad. “But it’s not enough to just show up.” He looked at each of us in turn, to make sure he had our full attention. “You have to pass the class. All of you.”
Seeing the no-nonsense expression on Dad’s face, Nick raised his hand. “I’m not sure—”
Dad stopped him with a motion. “All of you pass, or all of you fail. Like I said before, you need to learn to work together.”
“What happens if we fail?” asked Parker.
Dad sighed and leaned against his desk. “You know, I’m not asking you to do the impossible,” he said. “But if you can’t get your acts together for even a few weeks …”
Nick, Parker, and I leaned forward anxiously.
“I’m pulling you from public school and enrolling you at St. Ignatius.”
The collective gasp from my brothers and me nearly sucked all the oxygen out of the room.
“But they’re really strict!” I said. “I’ll never get out of the principal’s office.”
“And I’m starting on the JV football team this year,” said Nick. “That’s big for a freshman. St. Ignasty doesn’t even have a team.”
Dad didn’t say anything, just waited expectantly for Parker’s complaint.
“If I have to change schools, I’ll lose Ashley,” he said, shoulders sagging so much that I almost felt sorry for him. Between my two brothers, it was the annoyingly smart one who had the steady girlfriend. And she was alive … and human … and even pretty.
I turned toward Dad and gave him my most desperate, most pleading pout. “Please don’t make us do this.”
Dad pressed his fingertips together, a sign he was going into Prof Mode. “To quote the great Lao Tzu, ‘A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.’ This one,” he nodded at the pamphlet, “is yours.”