Chapter 1 CHAPTER 1
ROBYN KELLEN STEPPED OUT of the car and stared at her new home. It was not much to look at. A small, boxy house covered in stucco, with gravel and succulents where a front lawn should have been. But there was a palm tree. People had promised California would have palm trees. And, sure enough, San Luis Obispo—a town at once beachy, woodsy, and restaurant-y—seemed to have more than a few.
“Let’s get you inside,” said Mom, pulling Robyn’s suitcase from the trunk. “The dogs will be so excited to see you!”
Robyn smiled. She was excited to see them too. She liked spending her summers with her dad, his partner, and her half brother, Joshua, but nothing—nothing
—compared to coming home to a dog. And she had two of them: Sundae and Fudge, three-year-old Jack Russell terrier mixes with wiry white-and-brown fur, floppy ears, and curly tails. They went wild every time she returned from the grocery store. So how did they react when she came back from a lengthy stay at her dad’s?
How does an athlete react upon winning an Olympic gold medal? How does a lottery winner react upon winning millions of dollars? Combine those reactions and multiply them by ten. That
was how Sundae and Fudge behaved whenever Robyn returned from her dad’s. At least it seemed that way.
And who would not be eager to soak up that love?
Robyn followed Mom into the house.
At first, there was quiet. And in that moment Robyn was able to get a glimpse of her new home. To the left, the doorway to the kitchen. She could just make out the corner of the stainless-steel sink. Straight ahead, the living room, looking oddly familiar with the beige couch and the flowered armchairs that had been with Robyn and Mom for at least the last three moves.
And then came the clickety-click-clack of dog nails pounding against hardwood flooring. Sliding and scrambling as he rounded the corner and picked up speed was Sundae, his eyes eager to see if his nose was right, if he really had smelled Robyn. As always, behind him came Fudge, taking it easy, trusting her nose completely.
“Sundae! Fudge!” called Robyn as they bulldozed into her, knocking her off-balance and making her drop the two carry-on bags in her hands. Barking erupted as Sundae began jumping, springlike, as high as Robyn’s face. He flicked out his tongue and got a little taste of her cheek. Fudge circled Robyn and howled.
Robyn plopped onto the floor as the stress and numb tiredness of her long journey—the five-hour flight from Toronto, the three-hour drive from Los Angeles to the Central Coast—fell away. Her eyes grew bright as the dogs squirmed around her, their curled tails vibrating like possessed maracas. They licked her face. They licked her arms. And when they were finally done with the licking, they collapsed upon her and gave her grateful, adoring, pleading looks that begged her to never part from them—her pack—again.
She felt a little guilty. She always did. This was the cost of such a hero’s welcome: the knowledge that her absence had pained them so much.
So she petted them, and cooed at them, and kissed their pink little noses, until—reassured that Robyn was here to stay—they waddled over to the kitchen, where they sat down in front of a cupboard right inside the doorframe. Tired from the excitement, Fudge dropped her belly on the floor. Sundae stared up at the cupboard door.
“I guess that’s where you keep the treats,” said Robyn.
Mom sighed. “I tried keeping them in the pantry, but they figured out how to open it.”
Robyn got up. “Oh, you guys are so smart, aren’t you? My sneaky little geniuses, huh?” She walked over to the cabinet and pulled down the treat bag. She gave one treat to each dog.
Sundae swallowed his and immediately stared back up at the bag.
But Fudge, polite and grateful to the core, bumped her backside against Robyn’s calf and ran her tongue across Robyn’s shoe. If that wasn’t a thank-you, Robyn didn’t know what was.
Robyn pulled her new phone out of her pocket, took a picture of the dogs, and texted it to Dad. She had promised him lots of pictures of Sundae and Fudge and her everyday life. And since it was the promise of such pictures that had finally convinced him to get her her own phone, she was not going to let him down.
Mom had not been happy to see that phone when Robyn showed it to her, and since Mom had never budged in her resistance to letting Robyn have a phone, that hadn’t been a surprise. But, as Robyn had hoped, the joy of a mother-daughter reunion outweighed any reservations about the phone. Mom hadn’t said a word about it on the drive home. And she didn’t say anything about it now.
Instead, Mom offered Robyn a tour of the house. Since there were only two bedrooms and one bathroom, it did not take long.
When they came to Robyn’s room, Mom said, “Feel free to rearrange stuff. You do you.”
Robyn glanced around. The room was smaller than the one she’d had in Portland, and the view—a tiny yard with browning grass—was less attractive than the one she’d had in Boulder. But it was kind of cute. While the walls were off-white, the ceiling was painted the same sea green as her comforter, and there was a little arch over the door to her closet.
Her things were just where she would have put them herself. Tutu Tiger was propped against her pillow. Her favorite books were categorized on her bookshelf—old picture books in one area; favorite chapter books in another; books about science, animals, and the natural world in a third. And, of course, her cracked ceramic elephant lamp was on her dresser. She knew the lamp was a little babyish now that she was ten, but she didn’t think she’d ever have the heart to get rid of it. It had been loyal to her all these many years and many moves. She would be loyal to it in return.
Most importantly, the dogs were lying on her bed, watching her, and she could hear Mom rummaging around in the kitchen. And that was what made her feel at home more than anything. Robyn looked around the room once more and smiled grimly when she saw her old bulletin board hanging above her desk. With a sigh, she grabbed the smaller of her two carry-ons, opened it, and dug around for the journal her dad had given her the day before.
“Write whatever you want in here,” he’d said upon handing it to her. He’d been holding Joshua, who—acting like the grabby one-year-old he was—instantly lunged for it.
But two straight months with Joshua had taught Robyn a thing or two. She snatched the journal before Joshua could get it, and she turned sideways as she admired the illustration of a palm tree on the front.
“For California,” Dad had said excitedly.
She’d nodded. “For California.”
Now actually in
California, she opened the journal and carefully tore out the list she’d spent so much time writing and thinking about during her flight. She dropped her chin. It was a good list. It was very scientific and, therefore, factual. Everything on it was based on the law of cause and effect
, which her class had learned about in fourth grade. If you leave ice in the sun, it will melt. If you mix yellow and blue, you will get green. If you give a plant the right amount of water, sunlight, and good-enough soil, it will grow.
Still, it wasn’t until the summer that she began to apply the law of cause and effect to her own life, and it was all thanks to Joshua. Joshua was
cause and effect. If he had a messy diaper, he cried. If someone changed him, he stopped. If he was hungry, he cried. If someone fed him, he stopped.
But, really, how different was Joshua from anyone else? She’d wondered that one day when Joshua fell over, banged his head against the carpet, and started to cry, and then Dad—in picking him up—banged his own head against the wall and looked like he might start crying too. It made her think: Weren’t we all just banging our heads against walls and then paying the consequences? Indeed, hadn’t every encounter—good and bad—at every school in every town she’d ever lived in proved that very lesson? The friends she’d made. The friends she’d failed to make. The school subjects she’d aced. The ones she hadn’t. Weren’t they all the results of unseen causes and effects, actions and reactions?
That was a depressing thought.
But did it have to be? This was the new
thought that occurred to her somewhere over the Rocky Mountains. Once again, it was because of Joshua. She’d been remembering saying goodbye to him. His face had begun to strain and turn purple—a sure sign that he was midpoop. Lickety-split, they changed him before he could make a fuss. They’d been getting better at that—at reading his signals—and in doing so, they were learning this important, undeniable life lesson about cause and effect: poop happens, but if you are prepared, you can minimize the worst of it.
So… couldn’t she do the same? San Luis Obispo would be the sixth city Robyn and her mom lived in—the sixth time Robyn would be the new kid in school. Couldn’t she minimize the worst of being a new kid? Poop would happen. That was inevitable when you moved someplace new. But by reading the signs and sending the right signals, couldn’t she make it easier? Couldn’t she gain some control over the matter?
If that was the case, what would that control look like? How could she possibly prepare for it? Aha! That was the easy part. That was the science experiment she had unknowingly been living her whole life. So she’d pulled out her journal on the plane, put down her tray table, and got to work. She made a list that pulled together all the lessons of all those moves, one that would allow her to do what no new kid had ever done before: transition seamlessly and without drama into a new school.
And now, in her new room, she secured the list to the bulletin board.
Hands on her hips, she stood and read it:
Rules for New Kids
To be followed as closely as possible. DO NOT IGNORE!
- Don’t stand out. Lay low and blend in.
- People are judgers, so don’t make it easy for them to judge you.
- Fight fire with fire—if absolutely necessary—but don’t burn down the whole school.
- Laugh it off. Whatever it is, laugh it off.
- Don’t go looking for trouble.
- Stay busy. Don’t look alone.
- Be nice to everyone.
- Don’t rush things.
- If they hurt you, don’t let it show.
- Be flexible.
DO THESE THINGS AND EVERYTHING WILL TURN OUT FINE!
“Cause and effect,” she said softly to Sundae and Fudge. “Do the right action to get the right reaction. It’s going to work. It has