Author: © Kym Brunner
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for Young Readers
Publication Date: November 2016
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Today was the day I’d been dreaming about practically my whole life.
Too bad it was sucking big time.
I’d been given one job: grab the plastic critter cage from my room with the mouse inside and bring it with me. Simple. Go to my room, pick up the container, walk to the truck.
Somehow I’d managed to screw that up. I’d even fed that mouse a cheese curd last night and everything. We were practically bonded, the two of us. How could I have forgotten him? I looked down at my dark brown I’m Not Lazy – I Actually Enjoy Doing Nothing t-shirt, wishing I had actually done something productive for once.
“You’re such a moron!” my brother Lincoln roared from the back seat of Dad’s tricked-out pickup when my mistake was discovered. Lincoln was only eighteen, but he thought he knew everything. “What’d you do with it?”
Whoever said “brothers stick together” never met Lincoln. “I…I must have set it down somewhere in the house,” I stammered. “I don’t know.”
I did know, but wasn’t about to admit it out loud. After I’d grabbed the cage, I’d walked through the kitchen and there, right in front of me, was an unopened bag of chocolate mini-donuts. And since donuts are more like memories than actual food at my house because they’re never around for long, I had set the cage on the counter so I could scarf down a couple. Or maybe eight, I’d lost count. Was it my fault I’d grown six inches in the past year and was now 6’2” and ravenously hungry all the time?
The sound of Dad’s tires screeching to a halt directly in front of Pete’s Pet Emporium snapped me out of my donut dream.
“You’ve got two minutes to buy a new mouse and get back out here, or that hawk we saw will be long gone,” Dad warned, his bushy gray eyebrows pinched together in the center.
“Yeah, hurry it up, butthead. I don’t got all day,” Lincoln chimed in, flexing his softball sized muscles as he stretched. “I’m meeting Lauren in two hours.”
After seeing Dad’s eyebrows of anger, I held myself back from rebutting Lincoln’s butthead comment. Especially since I owed him one for convincing Dad to let me buy a new mouse instead of abandoning our trapping expedition altogether. I tore out of the truck and dashed into the pet shop, thankful they were open this early.
The bell jangled noisily as I whipped open the door, but it was barely audible over the squawking, barking, and bubbling of the overstuffed shop. Pete, the short, balding dude who’d owned this place for the past six years, wasn’t at the register so I rushed toward the back of the shop, where the mice were kept. I whizzed past a family crowded together in the puppy circle playing with a yipping ball of brown fur, making my way down the narrow fish food aisle. Where the heck was he?
“Yo, Pete? I need help real quick,” I shouted, hating to sound like a pushy customer, but my apprenticeship hinged on me trapping this hawk today.
“He went into the back room,” a female voice said from behind me.
“Thanks.” I turned around to see who had spoken. My jaw dropped when I saw her, forcing me to use every ounce of energy I possessed to shut it again. Standing in front of me was the prettiest girl I’d ever seen in my almost fifteen years on earth. She looked to be about my age, with elbow-length hair the white blond color of candlelight. She wore a blue t-shirt with white wording and some graphics, which I was dying to read, but I didn’t want to be a jerk and stare at her chest. Well, not while she was looking at me anyway. I did manage to notice, despite the limited ogling opportunities, that she had more curves than a French horn.
Instead of walking away, she said, “What are you buying?”
Her question startled me. I hadn’t expected someone who looked like they could be in a Victoria’s Secret ad to actually speak to me, but then again, why not? I wasn’t the handsomest guy around, but my little sister, Maddie, and her friend Hannah always giggle and call me “Hottie Pants,” so I figure I’m not too bad––even if the girls are only ten.
“Oh, just a mouse,” I told her, sounding way too cheerful. Then I cringed at how lame it sounded to be buying a dinky little mouse. Why hadn’t I said I was here to buy rat poison or bear feed––something more manly? If I could somehow slip it into the conversation that I’d be using the mouse to trap a dangerous, flesh-eating hawk, it might make her hang around for a few seconds longer.
“A mouse? That’s so sweet!” Her face lit up like I was the one who had just given her the diamond stud that blinged from the side of her nose. After seeing how excited she was by my buying a mouse, I was glad I hadn’t specified I’d be using it as bait for a hawk’s breakfast after all. “Do you mind if I watch while you pick it out?”
Was she serious? I wouldn’t have minded if she tied me down and poured red ants on my face, as long as she continued to talk to me. “No, that’d be awesome!”
Groaning inwardly, I wished I could calm down. I’ve talked to plenty of hot girls before, although to be honest, they’ve usually just given me my change and I’ve said thank you.
She blessed me with a blue ribbon smile—the kind you get for Best in Show at the county fair. “Cool! I’ve been in here wandering around, waiting for my parents to finish buying supplies at the hardware store down the street. Sad how all these animals are locked up though, isn’t it? I wish I could set them all free.”
“Yeah, real sad,” I agreed quickly, even though I thought it a bit extreme to want to free animals in a pet shop, but that was girls for you. Always feeling sorry for the weak and the meek. Come to think of it, perhaps this could work in my favor. “So where you from?” I hoped that she would say she just arrived in town and was moving in next door to my house.
“Up north. Not too far away.” She shrugged. “Want me to show you where the mice are?”
“Sure, that’d be great.” I acted like I didn’t already know it was the third tank to the left of the storage room door. As I walked behind her admiring the view, I ran my hand through my hair, wishing I’d brushed it this morning. While I had heard girls liked guys with thick wavy hair, I wasn’t exactly positive they liked tumbleweed head.
We stopped in front of the twenty-gallon tank filled with a swirling mass of mice, but I was still watching more of her than the mice. As I stared at her, I wondered if there was maybe something slightly off about her judgment. I mean, the only time I’d seriously ever attracted the attention of a really hot chick before was when I stood next to the chicken incubator at the Museum of Science and Industry tapping on the glass. Yet here she was, standing next to me, happy as could be. I rubbed my jaw, wondering if the heavy stubble that accompanied my recent growth spurt was responsible for this newfound female attention.
She clapped. “They’re all so adorable! What color are you getting?”
I wondered what color juvenile Red-tailed hawks preferred, but figured as long as it was furry and breathing, the color was inconsequential. “I hadn’t decided.” I remembered then to lower my voice. “Pick the one you like.”
“Really?” She looked up at me, her eyes wide with excitement. That’s when I saw that her eyes were sage green with light flecks of yellow in them, completely blowing me away. I’d never met anyone with eyes that color before, and was pretty sure I never would again, either.
The door to the storage room burst open, jerking me out of my droolfest. What was I doing standing here chatting when my hawk was waiting for me? Pete came out carrying bags of cedar shavings. “Pete!” I called out, waving a hand in the air. “If you have a quick second, I need a mouse right away.” I hoped he picked up on my need for speed.
He stopped walking and looked at me. “Another one? Your dad was in last night.”
“Yeah, I know,” I responded, purposely being vague. “Emergency replacement.”
He nodded. “Okay, okay. Just let me set this stuff down.”
“What do you mean, ‘emergency replacement’?” she asked, gracing me with another dazzling smile. “Do you have a whole slew of guard mice at home and one quit?”
She’s sweet, obviously has good taste in guys, and has a great sense of humor? I couldn’t believe that I finally met the girl of my dreams who lived “not too far away,” and I was stuck here in the land of No Driver’s License. “Worse than that,” I replied. “The commander lost his battle with German Cheesles today. Nastiest case I’d ever seen.”
She laughed heartily, not one of those stupid giggles I’d heard on the lips of all the dumb girls Lincoln used to date before he met Lauren. She leaned closer to the tank, her head moving from side to side as she watched the mice. “They’re all so cute.”
“Yep, hard to pick one, isn’t it?” I knew I needed to blow out of here soon before my dad stuck his head in the store and bellowed for me to hurry up. Talk about embarrassing.
“Oh my gosh! Look at that one!” She pointed to a mouse licking its paws. “It’s tan and has a white spot around her nose. You like her?”
“That’s the same one I was looking at!” I exclaimed, feigning amazement.
She smiled and smacked my arm with the back of her hand. “Liar!”
I laughed, thrilled that she made skin-to-skin contact, even if it were only to hit me. I suddenly feared that I might have had chocolate doughnut bits stuck between my teeth. When she wasn’t looking, I did a quick tongue sweep to clear any debris.
“All right. Here I am, Mercer.” Pete bustled toward us holding a white Chinese takeout container poked with air holes, identical to the one Dad had brought yesterday’s mouse home in.
Dream Girl’s head spun toward me so fast, the tips of her hair grazed my forearm, giving me the cheapest of cheap thrills. “Your name’s Mercer?” She looked intrigued, like many people do when they hear my name for the first time. I contemplated telling her that she misunderstood and that my name was actually Bill Gates Jr. But since my financial status pretty much hovered around zero on any given Sunday, I decided humor was the better route for me. “Yep, it’s Mercer––a favorite name of hit men and male models alike.”
She bit her lip coyly. “Which one are you?”
“Both.” I aimed my finger gun into the air, shot it, and blew on the end before stuffing it back in its holster. Then I struck what I hoped was a modeling pose, hands balled in fists on my hips. “Armed and ungodly handsome. That’s me, ma’am.”
She laughed again, making my spirits soar. I was just getting up the nerve to ask her what her name was, when Pete lifted the cover of the tank and handed it to me. “Hold this.” We’d bought enough mice from Pete over the years that he knew exactly what I wanted it for, so he reached in and grabbed the first tail he could.
“No, not that one!” Dream Girl cried in dismay. “The tan one with the white nose!” She tapped on the glass, pointing out the intended victim.
Pete shot me an exasperated look over the rim of his wire glasses.
I nodded sheepishly. “Yes, the tan one, please.”
Pete shook his head and sighed, setting the white one back into the tank. It took him a few tries, but he finally managed to grasp the tail of the tan mouse.
“Yes, that’s the one!” She grinned at me proudly, like she had birthed the rodent instead of simply picking it out. I decided right then that I wanted this girl to be the mother of my children, even if they ended up tan and furry with little white noses. But first, I’d have to ask for her number.
Pete put the mouse in the box and we followed him to the register. As he rang me up, my future wife turned to me and said, “What are you going to name her?”
I had never named my bait before, but figured it couldn’t hurt. “Not sure. Got any ideas?”
“That’ll be $1.22.” Pete handed me the carton.
“What do you think of Cinnamon?” She bit her nail, like she was worried I’d say no.
I pretended to consider it a moment as I dug my wallet out from my back pocket. “Cinnamon, huh?” I nodded, flipping open my wallet. “Yeah. I like that name.”
Pete rolled his eyes and held out his hand for the cash. Dad’s truck horn blared as I looked inside my wallet. It was as empty as my trap. I patted my pants pockets, feeling for change. Panic raced up my gut and lodged in my throat. “Oh no! I spent my last dollar at lunch yesterday. Let me run out to the truck.”
Pete threw his hands up. “Mercer! I’ve got a ton of customers here.”
“Sorry.” Not only sorry, but mega-humiliated. What kind of girl would want to marry a guy who couldn’t come up with two bucks to pay for a lousy mouse?
Dream Girl smiled at me and plopped her yarn purse onto the counter. “I got it.”
I would rather gouge out my eye with the fish tank thermometer than let her pay. “No, that’s okay. My dad’s right outside.” Four steps later, the cash register drawer slammed shut. I glanced back and saw Pete handing her change before he rushed off toward the puppy circle.
The horn blared again, this time longer. “Hold on!” I yelled over my shoulder.
She handed me the white carton. “Well, here you go. Have fun with Cinnamon!”
I started walking backward, an indelible grin on my face. “I will! And thanks!”
She nodded, waving. “No problem. Just take good care of your new commander.”
“You bet,” I assured her, thinking it depended on how she defined “care.”
I gave her one last tough guy head nod and dashed outside, leaving my dream girl behind. Three steps onto the sidewalk, I realized I had forgotten to ask for her phone number, her name––anything! How stupid was I?
As I flung open the truck door with my container in hand, I had to wonder exactly which one of us was the man and which one was the mouse?
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