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Authors: Lisa McMann

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CHAPTER 34
The Show Must Go On

T
he after-school soft-opening performance was a total disaster. Charlie and the others did all right with their major set changes thanks to the platform's wheels all turning properly now, but that had little effect on the actors' abilities to remember their lines and the words to the songs. They seemed to have forgotten everything they had done right in the dress rehearsal. Kelly was the only one who sounded confident with her part. Plus, the show dragged, and by the time it was over, there was only forty minutes for the cast to regroup, change their costumes, and eat something before the evening show began.

While Charlie and the crew reset the stage, Mr. Anderson was in the greenroom with the cast, hollering at them. It was clear he was disappointed. When Charlie whizzed by the room to get something, she overheard him say, “I give you a lot of responsibility in this class. It's up to you to actually do something with it.”

But he kept his reprimand short and sweet because of the time constraint and ended with a note of encouragement, although Sara overheard that part and told Charlie she thought it rang a bit hollow. Once they were finished resetting the stage, Charlie grabbed
a sandwich from the food table and sat down on the floor next to Sara to eat.

The subdued actors filed past to change out of their end-of-show costumes and back into their beginning-of-show costumes. Charlie kept her head down when Kelly walked by, but the girl seemed in no mood to harass her at the moment. She made a beeline for the backstage door, phone in hand.

“You did a good job, Charlie,” Sara said between bites. “I'm really glad you're in our class.”

“Thanks,” Charlie said. “I like it a lot.”

“Maybe we can work on the next play together too,” said Sara. “Co-stage managers, whaddya say?” She grinned. “Unless you want to try out for a part.”

“I like the backstage stuff better, I think.” Charlie shoved the rest of her sandwich into her mouth. “But I'm not sure I'm ready to take on your job quite yet.”

They chatted for a few more minutes until another crew member scurried past. “They're opening the doors already,” she said, a panicked look on her face. “Full house tonight. Anybody seen Kelly recently?”

“Not since she went outside,” said Sara. They wiped their mouths and stood up. Time to get back to work.

Charlie headed for the small props table to make sure everything was where it was supposed to be. It wasn't, of course. So she tracked down the actors whose props were missing to find out
where they'd set them down, and then went in search of the items to put them in place.

By the time Sara called out “Five minutes to curtain,” Charlie had finished her preshow tasks. She peeked into the auditorium, watching it fill up with parents and students. Was her family there? It was probably too much to ask to have her mom at her first soccer game one day and the play the next. But her dad had said he would come. Hopefully he didn't forget. Charlie quickly texted him, and he responded almost immediately. “We're here!” He sent a selfie with Andy, both of them wearing goofy looks on their faces, already in their seats. Charlie grinned, though she was a little sad her mom wasn't there.

She shut down her phone for the duration of the show, then went backstage to see if she could help with anything.

Mr. Anderson was running around, long wispy strands of comb-over hair flying. “Where's Kelly?” he asked everybody he passed. “If you see her, get her back here now! She's not in costume.” Nobody seemed to be able to find her, and the other actors were all too busy to search since they were trying to cram-learn their lines so Mr. Anderson wouldn't yell at them again.

Kelly was the last person Charlie wanted to talk to. But Maria's casual mention that things weren't going so great at home for Kelly had stayed with her. Besides, the show was about to start, and Charlie couldn't stand the thought of an even worse disaster than the earlier one. She slipped down the hallway in search of the star.

First she checked the bathroom, which was looking decidedly better than it had the last time Charlie had been in there: the toilet seat and broken tiles on the walls had been replaced, and a boarded-up spot covered the wall in place of the sink. Not finding Kelly in there, Charlie circled around the back of the auditorium and went through the stage door that led outside. It was dark, and at first glance Charlie didn't see anybody. But then she remembered Kelly had gone out here after the meeting. Perhaps she'd never come back in. She stepped onto the sidewalk and walked down it a few feet. On the other side of an overgrown, flowering plant that grew close to the building sat Kelly, still wearing her last-scene costume.

“Kelly?” Charlie called. “We're only a few minutes to curtain. Mr. A. needs you now.”

Kelly shook her head. “I'm not going. Tell him to find somebody else to play Kim.”

Charlie stared. The first show with Kelly had been bad enough. Doing the second one without her would be a tragedy. “Are you joking? I can't tell him that. If you're serious, you've got to tell him. And I hope you're not serious, because nobody else can play Kim. You didn't want an understudy, remember?”

“Shut up, Charlotte,” Kelly said bitterly. “I don't need this crap right now.”

Charlie recoiled. It was always unsettling when somebody said “Shut up” in such a mean voice. Still, remembering what Maria
had told her, she didn't lash back. She walked over to Kelly and crouched on the grass next to her.

“Look,” Charlie said. “You were the only thing that held the first show together. I don't know if you're upset about how it went or if something else is wrong, but we need you. There are a lot of parents out in the audience, and a lot of other actors and crew who have worked very hard for this. Everybody's counting on you. You can't let them down.”

During Charlie's speech, Kelly's face grew even darker. “Why should I care about everybody else's parents?” she spat out bitterly. “Plus, the cast let
me
down by not being ready for opening. It's embarrassing.”

Charlie wasn't sure what to think—something was obviously going on with Kelly that was bigger than the show. She looked around for help, but no one else was outside, so she kept trying. “Yes, it was rough—and the audience needed their pacemakers recharged, because they weren't reacting at all. But for the past thirty minutes, all the other actors have been cramming and rehearsing. We've got a full house tonight, and the crowd looks jazzed. Everybody's going to nail it.”

Charlie let out a frustrated breath, then got up. “It's time. I gotta get backstage. Come on . . . please? Because it's going to be a total train wreck without you. Which will really stink, since there's an actual train scene and everything.” She grinned, but Kelly wasn't playing along.

Charlie gave up and went back inside. She searched wildly for Mr. Anderson, who wasn't hard to find, since he was a walking ball of stress.

“Where is she?” he asked.

“She's outside beyond the bushes,” Charlie said. “She says she's not going on.”

“Oh, good grief,” Mr. Anderson said, rushing toward the door. “Tell Sara not to cue the music until I say so.”

“Got it,” Charlie said. She saw Sara and flagged her down.

“Kelly!” he bellowed out the stage door. “Kelly, it's showtime. Come on!” He paged frantically through the script in his hand as he waited.

Charlie delivered the message to Sara and filled her in on what was happening, then the two girls watched and waited, spellbound. Would they have to do the show without Kelly?

Mr. Anderson looked up. “Sara!” he said. “Does anybody else know the part of Kim?”

Sara shook her head. “Not that I know of.”

Just then, Kelly appeared in the doorway. “I'm here,” she said in a quiet voice.

“Oh, thank goodness,” Mr. Anderson said. He opened the door wider, and she stepped inside.

“The show will go on after all!” said Mr. Anderson. “Go change your costume, quickly! We're doing fine, we're doing fine—it's not a real performance unless we start ten minutes late. . . .” He
rushed off. Kelly sped past Charlie and Sara to the dressing room without a word.

Charlie watched her go. “You're welcome, everyone,” she said with a grin. Sara laughed, and the two went to their spots backstage to watch the actors look like idiots for the second time today.

CHAPTER 35
Deep Thoughts

A
fter the show Charlie found her dad and Andy outside in the school parking lot, where the audience had gathered to greet and congratulate the actors.

“Yay, you came!” Charlie said, grinning widely and giving her dad a hug, and then throwing a playful punch at Andy's shoulder. “Was it awful?”

“The set changes were smooth,” said Andy with a cheeky grin. “But some of the singing . . .” He wrinkled his nose. “The girl who played Kim was good, though.”

“That's Kelly,” Charlie said halfheartedly. She looked around and spotted Kelly basking in the warmth of effusive praise from fans, her laughter ever present now. Charlie couldn't tell if it was real or fake. Had she gotten over whatever had been bothering her?

They chatted about the show, Charlie keeping an eye on Kelly. There was nobody near her who looked like they could be her parents. Charlie wondered if they hadn't come. A pang of pity went through her. At least one of her parents was here, and Charlie wasn't even an actor. “Hmm,” she said under her breath. “Maybe that's why she was upset.”

“Who's upset?” Dr. Wilde asked.

Charlie turned her attention back to him. “Never mind. I'm ready to get out of here. Did you guys walk or drive?”

“Dad made us walk,” Andy said, sounding a little cranky. “It's far. I don't know why you decided walking to school would be fun.”

“There's a shortcut. Come on, I'll show you.” Charlie guided them between vehicles and led the way, chatting as they went along. “What did you think of the show, Dad?” Charlie asked. “Was it a complete disaster?”

“No, not at all. It was a little long,” Dad said carefully. “But you were amazing, of course.”

Charlie gave him a puzzled look. “Thanks. You know I was just doing the set changes, though, right?”

“Oh!” said Charlie's dad. “Um . . .” He scratched his head and laughed sheepishly. “So you weren't in the cast?”

“No, Dad.”

“Well, that's a relief. Because I was feeling pretty bad about not being able to tell which one was you.”

Charlie sighed. “I told you a million times I was doing backstage stuff.”

“I'm sorry. I've been a little too busy lately.”

“It's okay. Just be glad you weren't at the first show. Did you see the train station platform? I totally built that whole thing almost by myself.”

“You did? It was great,” her dad said. “If you're that good at building things, I think you can probably fix that hole in the drywall yourself,” he teased.

“Maybe I will,” said Charlie earnestly. “I bet I could figure it out. I like building things.”

He flashed an evil grin. “I'm sure I can find plenty of things for you to do. I could use a shed in the backyard.”

Charlie laughed.

“What do you need a shed for?” asked Andy. He narrowed his eyes. “You're not going to put Jessie out there just because it's not cold here, are you?”

“No, of course not. She'll always be an inside dog. I just need a place to store my old work stuff. It's taking up too much room in my office. I miss having a basement.”

“You mean those boxes with
T-A-L-O-S
on them?” Andy asked. “I knocked one over in the garage when Charlie slammed me into them the other day.”

Charlie scowled at him.

Their father raised an eyebrow. “Charlie, what did you do to him?”

“Nothing. He's fine. Aren't you, Andy?”

“Yeah, fine,” said Andy, shifty eyed. “So what's Talos?”

“Talos Global,” said Charlie. “It's the company Dad worked with before you were born. Right, Dad?”

“That's right.”

“What did you do?” Andy asked. “Were you, like, important or anything?”

Dad chuckled. “Nothing that amounted to much,” he said. “My team worked on some experimental contracts for the government. Top secret stuff.”

“Top secret?” said Andy, eyes widening.

“Not even your mom knows much about it.”

“Wow, that's so cool.”

Their father shrugged. “It's not as cool as it sounds. I had a lot more success being a stay-at-home dad, I think, looking after the two of you.” He gave Andy's shoulders a squeeze. “You turned out pretty good.”

Charlie linked her arm in his, and her mind annoyingly turned to Kelly again. “I guess we're pretty lucky that we had you around so much,” she said. “Even if you're not around now.”

Dr. Wilde looked offended. “I'm here right now,” he protested. “I think so, anyway. Somebody pinch me.”

Both kids gleefully obliged.

“Ouch! Yes, I'm definitely here.”

Charlie hugged his arm as they approached their neighborhood. “That's true. I'm glad you made it. Even if you thought I was in the cast, silly.”

“Do you wish you could go back to being a stay-at-home dad?” Andy asked him.

Dad scratched his chin thoughtfully. “Yes and no,” he said.
“I miss seeing you when you get home from school and hearing about all the exciting parts of your day. But I think I might get bored. You two are gone every day, and you both stay after school for things.”

“Like Battle of the Books,” said Andy. “Juan and Zach and I all signed up.”

“Like Battle of the Books,” their father agreed. “So if you two are busy with your own things, that leaves only so much cooking, cleaning, shopping, and laundry to do. Especially now that Charlie takes care of her own stuff.”

“We could definitely use your cooking,” said Charlie. “And you can go back to doing my laundry if you miss it. Trust me, I don't mind.”

Dr. Wilde patted her hand on his arm. “I thought you said you wanted more responsibility.”

“Aw, Dad,” Charlie said mischievously. “Not
that
kind.”

“When do I get to do my own laundry?” Andy asked. “I'm ten and a half now. Almost.”

“Believe me, you don't want to start,” Charlie groaned. “It's only fun the first time.”

Late that night in bed Charlie mulled over what Maria had said about her powers. She saw that Amari had texted her back to make sure all was okay, but Charlie hadn't had a chance to reply yet. Now she considered telling Amari everything about the bracelet
and about what Maria had said about her responsibility to help other people. Amari was sensible and would know what to say.

But Charlie held back. Witnessing the bracelet's powers felt kind of like one of those “had to be there” moments. You had to see Charlie in action to believe what the bracelet could do, like Maria and Mac had. And you couldn't tell just anybody about something like this. Besides, the more people who knew about the bracelet, the riskier it became to have it. By the time Charlie was drifting off to sleep, she came to the conclusion that this wasn't something she couldn't talk to her old best friend about. And surprisingly, that felt okay.

The rest of the weekend was filled with chores. On Saturday Charlie did laundry and cleaned the house with Andy and her mom while their dad worked in his study on lesson plans for the upcoming week. And on Sunday, with Mom working at the hospital, Dad emerged to help Charlie fix the drywall and install a new doorstop. And then for dinner her dad taught her how to cook her favorite chicken-broccoli casserole so that when he didn't have time to do it, she could take over.

Working around the house gave Charlie more time to think about the bracelet. She remained conflicted about her responsibilities. Having special abilities was fun when it came to winning soccer games or moving stage sets. But the way Maria had talked, it was like she was supposed to go out and look for all sorts of good
deeds to perform or something. And even though she and Mac had worked through their differences, Charlie was a little shy about running out to help other people now—what if they reacted like he had? Charlie would rather get rid of the bracelet altogether than deal with that again. Hopefully soon, Mac could try some more passwords, or at least give her the lists of codes so she could do some in her spare time. She thought about texting him to ask, but she didn't quite feel comfortable doing that after their confrontation on Friday. Maybe it was better for everybody to have a little space over the weekend. She'd ask him on Monday.

Sunday night, when Charlie was finishing up her homework before bed, Andy stopped by her room and tossed the Ms. Marvel comic book on Charlie's desk. “Can you get the second one for me?”

“Sure, I'll ask Maria,” said Charlie. “You liked it?”

“Why wouldn't I? Ms. Marvel kicks butt.” He disappeared.

Charlie glanced at the comic book. She pulled it closer and studied the cover, and then she turned the page and started reading.

On Monday Charlie was really looking forward to seeing Mac and Maria again. Their big discussion seemed so long ago, and now that the musical was over and soccer practice was down to once a week plus a game, Charlie was anxious to spend more time trying to break the code. It's not that she hated the bracelet, exactly. She just wished she could take it off and be normal if she chose to—it
was getting hard to remember what that was like.

She found Mac and Maria standing together outside their first-period classroom, arguing about the action movie they'd seen Saturday morning. Life seemed back to normal for them.

“Hey, it's M&M,” said Charlie, walking up. She felt her cheeks grow warm as she remembered their last meet-up. She still felt embarrassed about being called out for acting like a showoff. Hopefully they wouldn't talk about that anymore.

“Hey, Chuck!” said Maria, and Mac held out a fist for her to bump. Mendez, the jerk who'd been at the movie theater the Saturday before last, passed by them in the hallway. He wolf whistled and wagged his eyebrows at Mac and the girls. But this time Mac ignored the kid instead of getting mad. And Maria ignored him too.

“He'll shut up one of these days,” said Mac after he was gone.

“Notice he never has any girls around him,” Maria said with a sniff.

“Only his mom, because somebody's got to change his diaper,” said Mac.

Charlie grinned. It was good to be with friends.

Lunch that day was back to normal. Mac ate with Charlie and Maria, and when he was finished, he went off with his other friends, only this time it didn't feel weird.

“Mac and I talked some more on Saturday after the movie,” Maria said when he left. “He was feeling guilty about slinking
away to hang out with his other friends. And I was feeling guilty for hanging out with you and not including him. Because we were so tight, we'd never actually done that before. But we both figured out that if it's something we like doing, well, what's the problem exactly?” She laughed. “Just because we're not glued at the hip anymore, as my mother would say, doesn't mean we aren't still best friends.”

“That's really cool,” said Charlie.

“And,” said Maria, “it doesn't mean I can't have
two
best friends.”

Charlie smiled. She thought of Amari back home. “Two best friends,” she said. “Sounds pretty good to me.”

Kelly kept to herself all day and, to their surprise, didn't bug Charlie or Mac for answers about Friday's set-building drama. She seemed especially quiet and brooding today, actually.

In theater class Charlie asked Sara if she'd noticed it.

“Yeah, I guess you're right,” Sara said. “It's probably PSLS.”

Charlie frowned. “What's that?”

“Post-Show Letdown Syndrome,” explained Sara with a laugh. “After working so hard for so long and finally performing the show, it's over. And now,” she added, with a poor imitation of dramatic flair, “we have nothing left to live for. And we have to tear it all down.”

Charlie laughed. She understood the feeling. It happened in sports, too, at the end of the season. But she didn't think that was
the only thing bothering Kelly. The stagehands Kelly had insulted were still grumbling about her. And others had heard about the mean things she'd said by now. Some even began to whisper about the biting things Kelly sometimes said about other people when they weren't listening. Perhaps it had finally caught up with her. And then there was the mystery of Kelly's parents and her trouble at home.

Charlie didn't spend too much time wondering about her, though. She'd probably never know what that was all about. And she needed to keep her distance—she didn't want to give Kelly any reason to harass her about her secret again. But that seemed to be forgotten along with the rest of last week's excitement as they broke down the stage.

Soon the platforms and set designs they'd put so much work into were dissembled. Charlie found herself dragging some of the trash to the same Dumpster she'd lifted a few weeks before.

At soccer practice after school, Coach Candy reviewed the highs and lows of their first game, and then had the team work on their speed drills and passing skills before letting them go a little early as a reward for their first win. Charlie headed over to Maria's house with her so Mac could enter some more passwords and try to get the device off. Mac was already there, as usual.

He looked up as they walked in. “Can I see the bracelet?” he said.

“Sure,” said Charlie. She dropped her backpack and sat down
next to him, then stretched out her arm. While Mac messed around with the bracelet's buttons to get to the keypad screen and pulled up his list of the most promising options that he'd gathered from his phone apps, Charlie picked up Mac's iPad with her free hand. She checked her social media accounts and favorited a few of her Chicago friends' photos, then, out of boredom, she typed “Chimera Mark Five” into the search bar.

There was nothing that put the three words together as an item—only a list of results that had one or two of the words in the context.

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