Before the Deprogramming

By Kristen Bealer

"Aunt Jane, Adrian keeps looking at meeee!"

Not taking her eyes off the canvas in front of her, Jane replied, "Adrian, stop looking at your sister."

"Then tell Courtney to stop hogging all the markers!"

"Courtney, stop hogging all the markers." A few moments of merciful silence followed, and Jane finally reached out with her paintbrush to add a touch of green to her painting of a futuristic city.

"Aaaaadriiiiaaaaan! Quit it!" The outraged wail of a six-year-old girl sliced through Jane's concentration, and the touch of green abruptly turned into a gigantic smear.

Well, maybe I'll just call it "Blob Attack in the Year 2172," she thought with a sigh before turning to her niece and nephew. "Why don't we try a new game?" she asked desperately. A tearful Courtney and her seven-year-old brother Adrian looked at her with interest. "It's called 'Cemetery.' You have to lie on the floor and pretend you're dead. The first one to move or make a sound loses. Okay?"

As the children settled into their places on her bedroom floor, Jane tried to focus on the painting again. She ultimately found concentration impossible, realizing that she was constantly bracing herself for a fresh onslaught of whining.

She sat down on her bed and watched Adrian and Courtney as they muffled giggles and tried not to fidget. Not for the first time, she felt thankful that Summer's two younger kids were in day care while their mother worked at her temp job. I only have to make it until five-thirty, she reminded herself. Just an hour to go.

The last thing Jane wanted to do when she got home from Glenfield Middle School every day was baby-sit her niece and nephew, but no one else was available. Trent was always busy with his new "band," which had no drummer and still hadn't produced a single song. Wind only came home when his wife Claudia threw him out, which happened frequently but not predictably enough to rely on. No one had seen Penny in three years, although Jane was reasonably sure she was still somewhere in Central America.

As for Jane's parents, well...they only showed up when they were least expected, not when they were most needed. Even at thirteen, Jane knew that all too well.

Everyone else has an excuse to not be here every afternoon, she thought. I get shafted just because I'm not old enough to have a failed marriage or bum around third world countries.

Gazing at her ruined painting, she muttered, "You'd think that in this house, at least, art would be enough of a priority to get me out of kid-wrangling duty." Summer hadn't agreed, though, and insisted that as long as she was home, she could baby-sit.

So I need to not be home, then. She started a mental list of activities that might get her off the hook. Part-time job? Not old enough. Join a school sport? Not skilled enough. Cheerleading squad? Not crazy enough.

Just as she was about to contemplate joining the circus, a new argument exploded on the other side of the room over whether or not the dead could sneeze. With a quiet groan, Jane postponed her quest and turned her attention back to the kids.

That night, Jane stared again at her easel while she listened to Summer yelling at her kids in another part of the house. Great. Now I'm free to paint, but I'm too tired from chasing Courtney and Adrian around all afternoon.

She twirled a paintbrush between her fingers and studied the fresh piece of canvas in front of her. As hard as she tried to conjure up some inspiration, all she could think of was juice boxes and coloring books. She tossed aside the paintbrush and reached for the TV remote.

Remembering that there was a new program she'd been meaning to check out, she turned on the set just in time to see a psychedelic logo featuring an eyeball appear on the screen.

"These tough cookies are a disgrace to the uniform!" an announcer declared as the screen displayed four girls in matching outfits harassing an elderly lady on her porch. "See what happens when girls go scout of control on today's Sick, Sad World episode, 'Secret Scout Scandals!'"

At first, Jane laughed as a woman in shadow introduced herself as a troop leader and began to describe the abuse she'd suffered at the hands of preteen girls. Then, after a moment, she grew quiet and looked thoughtfully at the TV. Girl Scouts...

"On my honor, I will try:
To serve God and my country,
To help people at all times,
And to live by the Girl Scout Law."

Jane finished reciting the Promise and lowered her right hand, first three fingers still extended. She felt a little nervous as her first Girl Scout meeting began, but looked at her khaki shorts and vest with optimism. Although she knew that the scouts wouldn't really be like the ones on the Sick, Sad World episode, she had heard it was fun and figured it was worth a shot. Beats baby-sitting.

Summer had been frustrated when Jane first told her that between frequent meetings, various activities, and whatever the hell else Girl Scouts did, she wouldn't be available most afternoons. After a prolonged argument, Summer reluctantly enrolled Adrian and Courtney in an afterschool program and Jane was free.

The troop leader, a petite woman with curly blond hair, smiled at Jane and announced, "Girls, I'd like you to meet our newest scout, Jane Lane." The other girls smiled, waved, or said hello in turn. "Why don't we all take turns introducing ourselves? Everyone say their name, what school they go to, and what grade they're in."

Jane didn't recognize most of the girls in her troop. Many of them went to other schools, such as Franklin Middle School or Fielding Prep, and some went to Glenfield but were in a different grade than Jane. One of the latter was a girl who introduced herself as Brooke, grade seven, and although she was in eighth grade herself, Jane vaguely remembered seeing her in the hallways from time to time.

After the last girl finished, the troop leader stood and said, "And I'm Marianne. I work as an assistant at Vitale, Davis, Horowitz, Riordan, Schrecter, and Schrecter, but in my free time I like to crochet, take dance lessons, do jigsaw puzzles, garden, and go on camping trips with my family. And be a Girl Scout leader, of course."

As she sat down again, Marianne said, "And now on to troop business. Don't forget, we're planning a hike up Big River Hill next month." She nodded to Jane and added, "I'll give you the details after the meeting." Turning back to the troop as a whole, she continued, "And today I have your order forms to hand out! Is everybody ready to sell some cookies?"

The girls nodded eagerly as Marianne passed out the forms. Jane accepted her form and smiled slightly. Pushing junk food. This I can do!

As the last girl received her form, Marianne asked, "Does anyone have any new business?"

A tall girl with short red hair and glasses raised her hand. "I completed my first aid course at the YMCA this weekend!" she said. "So I've earned my Safety Award badge!"

"Congratulations, Ashley!" Marianne said, and the other girl scouts echoed her. Marianne opened a large satchel and rummaged around until she'd found the right patch. Handing it to Ashley, she said, "And I believe this is your twentieth one, right?"

Ashley nodded and the other girls cheered. Jane looked at her as-yet bare vest. Well, I've only just started. I've got time, she figured. But so far, so good. Everyone seems friendly, anyway.

After the meeting, Jane waited while Marianne gathered a few brochures and permission slips for the upcoming hike. Nearby, Brooke and a few other girls lingered to talk about cookie sales.

"I'm going to sell a million of these this year! I just found out my piano teacher loves the Samoas."

"Don't get too excited, Emily. The people at my Mom's job have been asking about cookies for, like, a month. She's going to bring in tons of sales!"

"Isn't that cheating?" Jane asked curiously.

"What?" replied Brooke, the girl who had spoken last.

"Well, I just thought we were supposed to sell these ourselves. Wouldn't it be kind of unfair to have our parents do it for us?"

Brooke snorted. "Oh, come on. All the Girl Scouts have their parents sell cookies at work. It's just, y'know, what everybody does."

I don't, Jane thought, wishing briefly that her parents had normal jobs or, failing that, stayed in the country for more than a week at a time. Maybe they could have asked some of their commune friends to buy cookies.

Marianne approached with the paperwork, and Jane turned away--but not before she noticed the nasty look Brooke shot at her.

"Hello! My name is Jane Lane and I'm in the Girl Scouts. How would you like to help support my troop by buying some delicious cookies?"

"Cookies?" sneered the woman at the door. "More like over-processed, artificially-sweetened slabs of industrial by-products! Go peddle your corporate poison somewhere else."

Jane turned away as the door slammed shut. I guess the corn in the front yard should have been my first clue that this house wouldn't be interested, she thought with a shrug.

"Hi, I'm Jane. Want to buy some Girl Scout cookies?"

The skinny young man with unruly red hair frowned at the order form. "Two and a half bucks for one measly box of cookies?" he asked in an annoyingly high-pitched voice. "What's so special about them that they'd cost so much?"

Feeling annoyed at an increasingly frustrating Saturday morning, Jane rolled her eyes and said, "They're from outer space. They cost so much because we have to pay the aliens to bring them all the way to Earth."

"Aliens? Really?" The young man stared at her in fascination.

No one is that gullible. He's gotta be messing with me. Laying it on even thicker, she continued, "Oh, yes. Not to mention the protection money we have to give them so they don't abduct any of the humans who buy the cookies."

Glancing nervously at the sky, the man asked, "But...there are actual aliens out there? And they abduct people?"

No longer sure whether or not he was joking, Jane gently took back her order form and said, "Sure. I guess. Gotta go." She hurried away as the man continued to peer at the sky in shock.

"Yo. Buy some cookies, or don't. Whatever."

A muscular teenager who had shoulder-length hair and serious difficulty staying upright shakily leaned on the door frame. The sounds of a wild party could be heard behind him. "Cookiesh?" he asked in a slurred voice. "Where?"

Jane winced as the heavy smell of beer breath wafted over. "I don't have any with me right now. First you order them and give me the money for them, then I deliver them to you later."

The boy stared at her, brow furrowed. Somewhere inside the house, several male voices repeatedly encouraged someone to "chug." At long last, the boy finally said, " don't have my cookiesh?"

Giving up on the sale but feeling curious, Jane ignored the question and asked, "Are you honestly having a kegger at four in the afternoon?"

The boy snorted. "We've been partying since lunch!" Seeing her disgusted expression, he sobered up just enough to look indignant. "Hey, do you know who I am? Huh? Well, I'm Tommy Shearghh!" His introduction was cut short as he doubled over and vomited on Jane's shoes.

Rolling up the order form and shoving it into a pocket, she turned around and sloshed away without another word.

That night, Jane painted a crowd of people being slaughtered by a hailstorm of radioactive cookies while Adrian and Courtney perched on her bed and watched. They loved hanging out with her, and she didn't mind having them around as long as Summer was home. They weren't so bad when it was possible to send them away at any moment.

"Um...Aunt Jane, are you okay?" Courtney eyed the painting nervously.

You know things are bad when even a hyperactive six-year-old can tell something's wrong, Jane thought as she stepped back from the canvas. "I'm fine," she reassured her niece. "I just had a bad day." "Bad" being another word for "mind-numbingly horrific."

After all she'd been through, she had sold less than a dozen boxes of cookies. Most of the people she asked had already bought cookies elsewhere, some were annoyed at the interruption, and those rare people that did buy cookies had only bought one or two boxes each.

Jane was beginning to understand why most Girl Scouts sent the order forms to work with their parents. She was also beginning to wonder if any of those parents would consider adopting her temporarily. Just until after the cookie order deadline.

Adrian was looking at the cookie order form with a wistful look on his face. "I wish I had money to buy cookies," he said. "Mom doesn't let us eat junk food."

She briefly considered letting the kids in on a secret involving their mother and Pez, but decided it wasn't worth the future aggravation from Summer. Instead, she said, "I wish you could, too."

"One of my friends at school said she wants to buy cookies if her parents give her money," Courtney said. "She said her mom really likes them, but she always forgets to buy them."

"Robbie and Andrew said that, too," Adrian chimed in. "I bet they'd buy a whole lot because they both have a bunch of brothers."

Setting down her paintbrush, Jane looked at the kids as wheels began to turn. "Hey, I don't have any meetings or anything until Wednesday this week. How would you like it if I came to walk you home after school?"

Two enthusiastic faces turned her way. "That'd be awesome!" Adrian said as Courtney nodded.

"Okay, then. On Monday, you convince as many of your friends as you can to buy cookies. Tell them to bring in as much money as their parents will give them on Tuesday, and I'll sell cookies to them all. Deal?"


Jane arrived early to her Girl Scout meeting on Wednesday afternoon, still admiring her long list of cookie orders. Those kids were practically throwing money at me. No wonder grade schools go to so much effort to keep drug dealers out!

"So, how have your cookie sales been going?" asked a snide voice behind her.

She turned to see Brooke walk in. Holding up her order form, she replied, "Pretty good. I had a bumpy start, but I'm getting there."

Brooke sniffed at the list of orders. "That's it? I got more than that my first day!" She smirked. "But then, I 'cheat,' don't I?" She held up her fingers to make imaginary quotes around the word "cheat."

"It's still early," Jane said. "I'm sure I'll sell plenty more before we're done."

"Are you saying you think you can outsell me?" Brooke said, incredulous.

"No, I--"

"Hey, guess what!" Brooke announced to some of the other girls, now entering the room. "Jane thinks she's going to sell more cookies than me!" A few of her friends giggled or rolled their eyes, but most of the girls pretended to be busy with other things. Jane suspected that they didn't want to get dragged into competition with Brooke, too.

Lucky me.

Fortunately, Marianne soon walked in and the meeting began. As Brooke shot smug looks her way, Jane hid her scowl as best she could and began thinking of ways to wipe the grin off the snooty girl's face.

By the end of the week, Jane had exhausted her supply of grade school customers but not her desire to show up Brooke. She had a little bit of luck trying Lawndale State, but found she had to catch students at exactly the right time and place--usually somewhere between the campus ATM and the snack bar.

Next, she started hanging around outside the local gyms and fitness centers and catching hungry-looking people as they left. That brought in a few more orders, but she soon realized that the crowd she was dealing wanted instant gratification and had little interest in waiting for the cookies to be delivered. She soon moved on.

She finally hit pay dirt at the Better Days Nursing Home. A plaintive "Please won't you help out a poor little Girl Scout?" paired with wide, innocent eyes was effective enough on its own. Adding "Your grandkids will be visiting you all the time when they find out you have cookies!" to her pitch usually tripled her sales.

By the time the order deadline came around, she was sure Marianne was getting sick of her near-constant requests for more order forms.

The day the cookies came in, Jane had to recruit help in the form of Trent and his battered Plymouth to get them all home. Trent was unusually irritable during the drive, but when Jane asked him what was wrong he muttered something about poetry, graduation, and bookstores and then fell silent.

Left to her own thoughts, she wondered if she'd get a badge for selling so many cookies. Brooke's increasingly sullen expression at each meeting as Jane turned in order after order was rewarding enough on its own, but Jane's Girl Scout vest remained empty.

She knew there were plenty of ways to earn badges, but they all involved doing major projects or taking classes or volunteering or, well, making a lot of effort. Selling cookies consumed more than enough of Jane's time. Anything further would cut into her sleeping time and painting time, both of which were much too precious to give up. Still, having at least one badge would be nice.

As soon as Trent pulled his car up to the house, Jane got out and gave a shrill whistle. The front door immediately opened and Adrian and Courtney ran out. "Get to work!" she ordered the kids jokingly. "All of these boxes go into my room, pronto!"

Both kids began grabbing boxes and marching inside. Trent trailed after them, holding boxes of his own, while Jane continued to supervise.

Now comes the hard work of delivering all these cookies, she thought with a slight wince. And tomorrow's the Big River Hill hike. Didn't I join Girl Scouts so I would have more time for my art?

"John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt! His name is my name, too! Whenever we go out! The people always shout! There goes John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt!"

Jane tried to block out the singing as she plodded along at the back of the group, having given up on the Girl Scouts' marching pace long before. Fast or slow, she griped silently. Pick one or the other. Can't we just walk like normal people? And talk like normal people? Cripes, not even the burlap sack-making fruitcakes at Mom and Dad's commune sang like this.

Noticing that Jane wasn't joining in, Brooke slowed her pace to fall into step next to her. "What's wrong? Is the Cookie Queen too good to hang out with the rest of us?" she asked with a sneer.

Once she'd learned exactly how many cookies Jane had sold--and, more importantly, how few cookies Brooke had sold in comparison--Brooke had apparently decided that cookie-selling competitions were silly and childish. Jane still felt a tiny thrill of triumph every time Brooke brought the subject up, though. And she did bring it up. Often.

Brooke continued, "At least now maybe you'll have one badge to put on your vest. Too bad it'll look awfully lonely." She admired her own sizable collection of badges while Jane rolled her eyes and tried not to let her irritation show.

"I guess it's not like you need the exercise, anyway," Brooke said in reply to Jane's stony silence. "I mean, gawd, you're so skinny it's almost kind of gross. Don't your parents feed you?"

Jane nearly tripped. The reference to her parents hit closer to home than Brooke realized. That morning, she'd gotten a postcard from her mother informing them she'd be gone at least two months longer than she'd originally thought--which meant she would miss Jane's birthday for the third year in a row. "Leave me alone," she snapped. Furiously ignoring Brooke's triumphant smirk, she carefully maneuvered her way to the other side of the group.

"Are you enjoying the trip?" Marianne asked, walking nearby. The look on her face suggested she knew the answer to that question.

Jane shrugged. "What's not to like? The flowers are in bloom, the sun is shining, and about a dozen preteen girls are belting out a repetitive song at the top of their lungs."

Marianne both smiled and winced. "I realize it's a bit jarring, but they're just excited. Try to relax and appreciate the beauty of nature."

Returning the smile slightly, Jane had to acknowledge that the hill was very pretty. Some of the scenery was even giving her ideas for her art. Still, I could live without the constant onward march. I feel like I'm going off to war.

Glancing over at the haughty Brooke, she frowned. Then again, who says I'm not?

Feet aching, Jane dragged herself to the front door of the house. This really isn't worth it, she thought. I should just quit. If I don't tell Summer, maybe I can still get out of baby-sitting. She sighed as she opened the door. But me quitting might make Brooke happy. Can't have that.

She entered the house and, hearing voices in the kitchen, walked in to see Trent with his friends Nick and Jesse. Her greeting died in her throat as she realized that they were eating while they talked.

Eating cookies.

"Trent!" she cried, taking in the sheer quantity of open and empty boxes. "Those cookies were for the people who paid for them!"

Trent mumbled around a mouthful of Thin Mints, "I thought they were yours. We put them in your room, right?"

Frustrated, Jane replied, "We put them in my room to keep them safe from hungry mouths. Not that it worked."

"Oh." Trent had the grace to look sheepish. "I'll, uh, pay you back?"

"With what?" Jane grumbled as she hurried up the stairs. "The profits of a band that doesn't even have a name yet?"

She was on her way to see how many cookies were left when she heard sobbing coming from Wind's room. She poked her head into his doorway to see him engrossed in an episode of The Living Marriage: A Holistic Blueprint For Loving and eating from one of many boxes of Shortbreads.

"Oh, Claudia!" he wailed. "Why? We swore to that guy in the Klingon suit we'd be together for the rest of our lives! Didn't that mean anything to you?"

Jane growled under her breath, but knew it would be useless to try to talk to her brother in that condition. She continued on, bracing herself as she walked.

The first thing she saw upon entering her room was her niece and her nephew, passed out in blissful sugar-induced comas. The second thing she saw was the huge pile of empty cookie boxes on the floor next to them.

Leaning against the doorframe in shock, she began to wonder if the Girl Scouts gave out badges for massive cookie scams.

Jane arrived at the next meeting early, and was relieved to see Marianne already there. She quickly explained the situation: even though Trent had kept his word and pitched in what money he could, Jane now owed more than three hundred dollars in refunds for the eaten cookies.

"I'll figure out a way to pay everyone back," Jane promised, "but I think I want to quit the scouts. I...I'm really sorry," she finished.

The troop leader looked at Jane sadly. "I wish you'd reconsider," she said. "I know you've had a rough start, but I'd like to think you got something out of your time here."

"Well, I got a humongous debt that will probably take years to repay. Does that count?"

Marianne shook her head with a small smile. "I was thinking more along the lines of learning a new skill or earning a badge."

Jane toyed with the edge of her bare vest. "That would be nice," she admitted.

Neither of them spoke for a few moments. Finally, Marianne broke the silence. "I'll tell you what," she began. "If you earn just one badge, I'll cover your debt."

"And I can still quit?" Jane asked quickly.

After a pause, Marianne reluctantly nodded. "If that's what you really want to do."

Jane let out a relieved sigh. "I'll do it. And I'll pay you back someday. I promise." The troop leader opened her mouth to protest, but the determination in Jane's eyes stopped her.

Marianne took a sheet of paper out of her satchel and showed it to Jane. "This is a list of interest projects Girl Scouts can do to earn different awards. Do any of these look like something you'd like to do?"

Reading the list, Jane finally pointed at one item. "What about this Visual Arts patch? I can do art." Or at least, I could if my inspiration hadn't run dry thanks to stress.

"I know you can, but these awards are about more than that. You'd have to apply your art to some kind of service project."

Jane frowned. "Service? You mean, volunteer for something?"

Seeing the dismayed look on the girl's face, Marianne shrugged. "I never said this would be easy."

The next morning, Jane doodled in class while she listened to Jodie Landon read the announcements over the intercom. Service project? What the hell can I do with my art that would help other people? Dammit, I wish a solution would just fall into my lap so I could stop agonizing over this!

"...and in other news, the school dance will be held in three weeks and we need students to help plan it, including a volunteer to lead the committee. And it's not going to be me!"

Jane stared at the speaker in awe. Next time, I gotta wish for cash. Large denominations preferred.

"You are officially dismissed from the dance committee!"

Jane strolled out of the school cafeteria, leaving behind a fuming Sandi Griffin. I only had to show up for three meetings before she kicked me out, but it still counts. Tonight I'll be able to turn in my uniform, collect my badge, and say hello to freedom!

Her good mood sagged as she saw Brooke approaching from down the hall. Wishing she could just blend in with the lockers, Jane walked quickly and tried to avoid eye contact.

It didn't work. She knew she'd been spotted when she heard a mocking voice call out, "In a hurry, Cookie Queen?" Brooke knew nothing about the eaten cookies or the refund money, but the reminder still made Jane's stomach clench. A flicker of annoyance must have shown on her face, because Brooke saw her opportunity and continued, "I heard you're finally earning a badge. It's about time."

Still silent, Jane just stared at her. Brooke began to grasp for new insults.

"I guess I'll see you at the next meeting. We're going to have a body image session, so maybe that will help you cope with how, like, way too skinny you are."

Screw this. I'm not going to let her ruin my good mood. Jane finally spoke. "Actually, I won't be there. But I hope the session helps you feel better about your nose."

Brooke frowned and put a hand to her face. "My nose? What's wrong with my nose?"

Putting on her best "Oops!" look, she replied, "You mean no one's ever said anything to you about it? Wow. I mean, you must have the nicest friends and family ever." Before Brooke could respond, Jane made a point of glancing at a nearby clock. "Oh, gee. Love to stay and chat about facial deformities, but I've really got to get going. See ya!"

As Brooke made herself cross-eyed trying to see her own nose, Jane took advantage of the distraction to hurry down the hallway. Laughing, she increased her speed as she threw open the school door and escaped into the sunshine outside.

Free, she thought. Free from stupid Brooke, free from selling cookies, free from the Girl Scouts, period.

She inhaled the fresh air deeply and noticed that she was running down the sidewalk at top speed. Although she was momentarily startled, she recovered quickly and continued at the same pace, reveling in the unexpected high.

It's like a rush, she realized. I don't think I've ever just let go and run like this before. Jane smiled and felt the breeze ruffle her hair as she sailed along on her way home. The steady thudding rhythm of her feet hitting the ground kept her almost mesmerized. By the time she reached her house, she was panting with exhaustion, dripping with sweat, and glowing with delight.

She climbed the stairs to her room, intent on a shower, but stopped when she saw her easel set up in the corner. Grinning, she grabbed a paintbrush and went to work. The beautiful day combined with the exhilaration of exercise had given her inspiration a long-awaited boost, and she didn't want to lose a second of it.

The high, despite being extended and enhanced by her art, finally began to fade after the third painting. She was still smiling as she grabbed a change of clothes and made her way to the bathroom for a shower.

That evening, Jane stretched out on her bed and looked thoughtfully at her new badge while Adrian and Courtney played. Her leg muscles were sore, but she still had a smile on her face. I'm definitely going to do that more often, she decided.

"Aunt Jane?" Courtney asked, interrupting her thoughts. "Mom said we're gonna move again soon."

"That's too bad," Jane replied, a little surprised to find she actually was disappointed. The kids were okay when they weren't whining or arguing or eating their own body weight in cookies.

"She met somebody," Adrian added darkly. All three of them knew what that meant. Summer had found a new sugar daddy and was going to move in with him until the novelty wore off. Summer's relationships, like her jobs, were strictly temporary.

Jane looked at her niece and nephew with sympathy. She knew they hated being dragged from place to place by their mother. "Tell you what," she offered. "Maybe I'll let you guys come running with me a few times before you leave."

The kids looked at her in confusion. "Running?" Adrian asked. "What's so great about running?"

"Trust me," Jane assured them. "Not only is it really fun, but it's also a great way to get away from people who annoy you." She smirked as she remembered the satisfaction she'd felt as she rapidly increased the distance between herself and Brooke.

"You can do that?" Courtney asked. "Just run away from people?"

"Sure," Jane said, then paused when she saw Courtney and Adrian exchange mischievous grins. "Um, I should probably clarify--" It was too late, though. The kids bent their heads together, oblivious to everything but their own plotting.

Shrugging, she left them to it. She carefully put the badge away in a drawer before heading downstairs. As she reached the living room, Summer walked in from the kitchen and saw her. "Jane!" she called out. "I've got a date with my new boyfriend tonight. Can you baby-sit?"

"Sorry, I can't," Jane replied. "I'm going for a run."

Thank you to RLobinske for beta-reading.