Award-winning author Peg Kehret returns with a suspenseful thriller for middle graders!
Peg Kehret includes humor, animal rescue, and heart-pounding suspense in this story about good intentions gone wrong. Sixth-grader Emmy Rushford decides to provide food for a needy family, but the project turns perilous when Emmy must deal with a car crash, a cat thrown into a Dumpster, and a belligerent neighbor. Then she discovers an apartment full of stolen goods. Her courageous efforts to help hungry children, rescue the cat, and break up a ring of thieves soon put her life at risk.
About the Author
Peg Kehret is the winner of more than forty state young reader awards. She lives in Washington State with her rescued dog and two rescued cats.
Read an Excerpt
I only intended to help two children who were hungry and had no money for food. That’s an admirable goal for a sixth-grade girl, isn’t it? You can’t get in trouble for doing unto others as you would have them do unto you. Right?
Wrong! I may have had noble intentions, but I still ended up causing a car crash, being abducted by a thug, and smuggling a scared cat on a city bus by sticking him inside my T-shirt, a maneuver I do not recommend unless you’re wearing a steel undershirt.
It all began when Mom got sick. I know it wasn’t her fault. Nobody would choose to spend half the day moaning in bed and the other half dashing to the bathroom. Still, it was a terrible time for her to get the flu. I suppose there isn’t a good time to have the flu, but Mom is especially busy in April.
She works in the children’s department at Dunbar’s, the biggest department store in Cedar Hill. Every April Dunbar’s has a big contest, “Make Your Dunbar’s Dream Come True.” The entry forms look like this:
If I could have anything I want from Dunbar’s Department Store, I would choose . . .
Finish the sentence in one hundred words or less, telling what you want and why. Then bring your completed entry to Dunbar’s and drop it in the big red Dunbar’s Dream box on the second floor or mail it to the address below.
One lucky winner will have his/her Dunbar’s Dream come true.
Two runners-up each receive a $25.00 gift card.
There’s a place for the person’s name, address, and phone number, and then in small print, it says, “All entries are confidential. Contestants must be eighteen or older.” That’s followed by Dunbar’s mailing address.
The first year that Dunbar’s had the contest, April sales increased by 35 percent. Apparently, people looked at all the merchandise to decide what they wanted most and then ended up buying it when they didn’t win. Naturally there is now a Dunbar’s Dream Contest every year.
Since the big red box where people leave their contest entries is in Dunbar’s children’s department, Mom was asked to empty it each evening and go through the entries to choose the best ones. The top ten get passed along to Dunbar’s manager, Mrs. Murphy, who selects the winner.
The first year, Mom volunteered her time. By the second year, the number of contest entries increased so much that Dunbar’s agreed to pay her extra for judging the contest. At that time, she also promised in writing not to tell anyone that she was a judge or to share the contents of the entries with anyone other than Mrs. Murphy.
The day she got the flu was the first week of this year’s Dunbar’s Dream Contest. Piles of entries covered our dining room table. I’d had to eat breakfast standing at the kitchen counter, which made me cranky, and I was even crankier when I got home from school. It had been a rotten day.
Somewhere between leaving home that morning and arriving in my third-period history class, I had lost the history homework that I’d done the night before. I found it later, tucked inside my library book, but by then third period was over, so even though I turned in my assignment, I got an automatic grade deduction for being late.
Then it was Cook’s Surprise Day in the school cafeteria, which meant I had Gag Casserole for lunch. No sane person wants to make this, but in case you are curious, here is the recipe:
GAG CASSEROLE RECIPE
Mix cooked macaroni in a lumpy white sauce with leftover peas, carrots, corn, and whatever else you can find from the day before. (Sometimes called Clean-out-the-Fridge Casserole.) Bake until heated through. Drop globs onto plates. To lessen chance of gagging, hold nose while eating.
Some kids swear the cook actually puts table scraps from kids’ plates into a big bowl and then stirs it all together to make Gag Casserole. I don’t believe that, but I always bring a sandwich on Cook’s Surprise Day. Not this time. Mom’s the one who remembers to check the school menus and make me a lunch if the entrée isn’t something I like, but that morning she didn’t get up because she wasn’t feeling well. She was in bed when I left and still in bed when I got home.
Her voice sounded quavery when I let myself in. “Is that you, Emmy?”
I stood in the doorway of her bedroom. “How are you feeling?” I asked.
“Did you go to work for a while?”
Mom shook her head. “I didn’t even get dressed.”
“How did you get more contest entries? There’s a whole new bag of them on the table.”
“Colleen dropped them off. She worked for me today.”
“Did it not occur to her that, since you have the flu, she could offer to read the entries this time, or pass them along to Mrs. Murphy?”
“Colleen’s only worked there a couple of months,” she said. “She probably doesn’t realize how much time the contest takes.”
Waggy, our goofy black Lab mix, stood by the door making the little woof sounds that he makes when he needs to go out, so I snapped the leash on him and took him for a quick walk. Yes, I know that Waggy is not a particularly clever name for a dog, but I was only six when we adopted him. At least I didn’t call him Blackie.
When I returned, I fixed Mom a cup of tea and a slice of toast, but the sight of food made her more nauseated than she already was and she bolted for the bathroom. I gave the crusts to Waggy, ate the rest of the toast myself, and watered our houseplants with the tea.
“How did your day go?” Mom asked, after she staggered back to bed.
I rolled my eyes. “We have to do a community service project,” I said, “and I’m in the same group with Jelly Bean Logan and Shoeless Parsh. They spent most of our allotted time arguing that we could go to Dairy Queen after school and have it count as a project for feeding the hungry. I’m in the worst group of the whole class.”
“Is it only the three of you?”
“No,” I said. “Lauren and Abby are in my group, too. So is Hunter Kramer.”
“Then the four of you can outvote Jelly Bean and Shoeless,” Mom said.
“They are such blockheads,” I said.
“How did Shoeless get that ridiculous nickname?” Mom asked.
“He stomped in mud during recess on his first day of kindergarten, and the teacher made him leave his shoes off for the rest of the day.”
“Kindergarten was six years ago.”
“He’s every bit as wacky now as he was then,” I said. “His only talent is to wiggle both ears at the same time. They go up and down really fast.”
Mom closed her eyes, as if she couldn’t bear to hear another word about Shoeless. I can’t say that I blame her.
“I guess I’m on my own for dinner,” I said.
If Dad had been here, I would have lobbied to have pizza delivered, but Dad was in Alaska for two weeks. He installs and maintains complicated computer programs in hospital pharmacies and teaches the hospital personnel how to use them. He’s often away for a week or more at a time.
I knew there was no point asking if I could order pizza. For the last six months, Mom’s been on a mission to encourage me to lose weight. She’s never actually said she thinks I’m too fat, but she constantly reads food labels out loud, especially the calorie count and the grams of sugar and fat. I hate it when she does that.
The thing is, I know I weigh more than I should. I know my thighs are flabby and my butt’s too big. I don’t need Mom or anybody else to point it out to me. I can see myself in the mirror and, one of these days, I plan to get in shape, but I’ll do it when I decide I want to, not because somebody else doesn’t like the way I look. I wish the media would quit telling us about the obesity epidemic of America’s children. I am not obese, but because of all the hype, my parents are afraid I will be.
I poured a glass of orange juice, then picked the broccoli out of some leftover mac-and-cheese before I zapped it. Mom tries to sneak broccoli into everything, claiming that the taste of the mac-and-cheese or spaghetti or whatever else she’s contaminating will overpower the taste of broccoli. It doesn’t work. Luckily for me, Waggy likes broccoli.
I pushed some of the contest entries aside to make room for my plate.
While I ate I started reading the entries. The first one said, “I would choose a dishwasher because it would save me a lot of time. My lazy husband never helps with the dishes, and I end up spending half the night cleaning up the kitchen while he watches TV. What I really need is a new husband, but a dishwasher would help a lot.”
The second entrant was a girl named Allison. I could tell by the handwriting that she was a kid, even though the contest rules state you have to be eighteen or older. Allison said she would choose a Barbie and a makeup kit. I was tempted to send her a letter, since her address was on the entry form.
Barbies and makeup kits are fine, but why not ask for a microscope, too, or a basketball? Let’s not limit ourselves here, girl.
Of course I couldn’t do that so I read the next entry in the pile. Then I read it again.
I would choose food, any kind. My little sister, Trudy, cries in her bed at night because she’s hungry. I take an empty sack to school every day and pretend to have a lunch. All of Mama’s pay this month went for our rent. She will find a second job as soon as she gets well. We need cat food, too. My cat is hungry.
The entry was signed Sophie. No last name. She lived at 1135 East Sycamore, Apt. 3.
Dunbar’s doesn’t have a grocery section, but there is a small coffee stand just inside the main entrance that sells pastries and a few pre-packaged sandwiches, in addition to specialty coffee drinks. Maybe Sophie hoped to win tuna-salad sandwiches and lemon pound cake.
I thought about the people who had won the Dunbar’s Dream Contest in the previous six years. One got a dining room set. Another received an upright freezer. Nearly all of the entrants chose expensive items, such as appliances or furniture.
You don’t need a dining room set or a freezer if you have no food. Sophie needed bread and apples and cans of soup. She and her sister needed bananas and oatmeal and peanut butter. Feeling guilty, I realized they’d probably even be glad to get broccoli.
Thinking about all that food made me hungry, so I took the package of shortbread cookies out of my backpack and opened it. Mom had quit keeping any kind of dessert in the house, so I was forced to spend my own money on treats. Usually I stopped at the mini-mart after school, even though the prices there were higher than at the supermarket.
By evening, Mom felt better. I took her some apple juice and while she sipped it, I said, “I read a few of the contest entries. There’s one from a girl who says her family needs food.”
“Some of those entries break my heart,” Mom said.
“You mean you’ve had entries like that before, from needy kids who don’t have enough to eat?”
“Not from kids. But there are plenty of people in Cedar Hill who can’t afford warm clothes or beds.”
“When you get entries like that, what do you do?”
“In prior years the Help Your Neighbor organization contacted the person and offered to supply what they needed, but this year their donations are way down. They’ve already used most of this year’s budget.”
“Then who helps people like Sophie? Will you and Dad buy food for her family?”
“I wish I could help, but I can’t.”
“Why not?” We aren’t wealthy, but I knew Mom and Dad contributed to several charitable organizations. I couldn’t imagine why she would not help kids who need food so badly that they enter a contest to get it.
“Dunbar’s won’t let me.”
“What? Why would anyone care if you helped a hungry child?”
“So, did Help Your Neighbor give him new shoes?”
“Help Your Neighbor was not yet involved, so I showed the letter to Mrs. Murphy and told her I planned to mail that woman a gift card to use for shoes.”
“I didn’t do it, though. Mrs. Murphy reminded me that I had signed a confidentiality agreement when Dunbar’s hired me, agreeing that I would not disclose any Dunbar’s business to anyone other than my supervisor. I’m already bending the rules by discussing the entries with you; giving gifts to people who entered the contest would be cause for my dismissal.”
“That’s ridiculous!” I said. “Why would they fire you for helping a little boy get a pair of shoes?”
“Dunbar’s states in the contest rules that what the entrants ask for will be kept secret. I didn’t push the matter because I feared if I made a fuss about it, the higher-ups would decide I couldn’t help with the contests. I enjoy screening the entries, and the extra money has been nice.”
“Doesn’t it break the confidentiality agreement to tell Help Your Neighbor about some of the requests?”
“Their attorney drew up an agreement with Help Your Neighbor. They never mention Dunbar’s contest. They contact people as part of a random survey and then discover what the people need. Now that they’ve almost run out of funds, I don’t know what will happen.”
In bed that night, I thought about Sophie’s contest entry. I often complained at bedtime that I was starving and had to have hot chocolate or popcorn before I could fall asleep, but I had never actually gone to bed hungry. I thought of little Trudy crying from hunger pangs. I stroked Waggy, who was stretched out beside me, and thought how awful it would be to have no food for a hungry pet. I had to help Sophie, no matter what Dunbar’s privacy rules said.
I got up, retrieved Sophie’s entry, and stuck it in my backpack. My group at school needed a community service project. Maybe I had found it.
Mom could lose her job if she personally helped someone who entered the contest, but Dunbar’s couldn’t fire me or my classmates. Mom didn’t give me the letter. If I don’t tell her what I’m doing, she won’t be in trouble.
Right after lunch the next day, Mrs. Reed had us divide into our community service groups. “In half an hour,” she said, “I want each group to submit their first choice for a project.”
Crystal Warren said, “There’s going to be a new TV show called The Biggest Helpers, about kids who do service projects. The group with the best project wins a million dollars!”
We all looked at Crystal but said nothing. Crystal often announces “news” that she swears came from reliable sources but are really the ridiculous headlines on tabloid newspapers, or maybe just stuff she makes up. The rest of us had learned long ago not to pay any attention to Crystal.
“Get into your groups, please,” Mrs. Reed said.
Jelly Bean and Shoeless picked up right where they had left off the day before.
“First choice,” said Shoeless, “is an after-school pizza party for the hungriest group in Cedar Hill. Us.”
“Second choice,” said Jelly Bean, “would be if we go to Dairy Queen instead of getting pizza.”
“We are not doing any project that feeds us,” Lauren said.
“This is supposed to be something to benefit the community,” Abby said.
“There are kids in Cedar Hill who are really hungry,” I said. “They are the ones we need to help.”
“I’m really hungry,” said Shoeless. He wiggled his ears up and down, as if that would prove how emaciated he was.
“So am I,” said Jelly Bean. “If a Hunger Meter could measure how empty my stomach is, I would hold the world’s record.”
“Give me a break,” said Abby.
“You guys are lame,” said Hunter.
“Yeah?” said Jelly Bean. “Well, let’s hear one of you come up with a good community service project.”
“I have one,” I said as I took Sophie’s contest entry out of my backpack, “but before I tell you what it is, you have to promise to keep it a secret.”
“We’re going undercover for a drug sting!” said Shoeless. “Hoo-ha! I’ve always wanted to be a plainclothes detective.”
“It isn’t a drug sting,” I said.
“If it’s your idea, it must involve chocolate,” said Hunter. “I saw you eat three cupcakes at lunch yesterday.”
“I forgot to bring a lunch, and I didn’t want to get sick from eating Gag Casserole,” I said. I wanted to add that what I eat is none of his business, but I didn’t.
“So, what’s the project?” asked Jelly Bean.
“You won’t tell anyone?”
Curiosity prompted them all to agree to keep the secret, so I read Sophie’s entry out loud. For once, Shoeless and Jelly Bean had no smart remarks.
“Wow,” Abby said. “That girl sounds desperate.”
“Her little sister cries herself to sleep because she’s so hungry,” Hunter said, as if he had to say it out loud in order to believe it.
“This project will be simple,” said Jelly Bean. “All we have to do is mail the entry to one of the TV stations. They’ll read it on the air and a couple of hundred people will send a bunch of food and money. Problem solved.”
“That would work, except for one thing,” I said. “As I said, the contest entry has to remain a secret. We can’t tell anyone about it.”
“What’s the big deal about keeping quiet?” Shoeless asked. “This is one of those stories that TV announcers love. It’s a tearjerker when they read it on the air, and then two days later they can say what generous viewers they have, and take credit for solving Sophie’s problem.”
“It’s against the contest rules for Dunbar’s to show the entries to anyone else,” I said. “If we go public with this, my mom gets fired.”
“We have a major problem,” said Hunter.
Mrs. Reed interrupted by announcing, “You have five more minutes to decide on your first choice for a project.”
“We can’t tell her, either,” I said.
“Why not?” said Abby. “We could show her Sophie’s entry, and explain why we have to keep it secret, and ask if we can have a food drive. We can call it something generic like ‘Food for Hungry Children’ so that Mrs. Reed is the only one besides our group who knows where the food will go.”
“That might work,” I said, wishing I’d thought of it myself.
“Let’s try it,” said Lauren.
“Yes,” said Hunter. “The worst that can happen is she’ll say no and then we’ll have to think of a different community service project.”
“There’s always Dairy Queen or pizza,” said Shoeless.
Abby said, “I move that we show the letter to Mrs. Reed and explain why we can’t tell anyone else.”
“Since I am a totally unselfish person who always puts others first,” said Jelly Bean, “I vote yes.”
“Even though I am seriously malnourished myself,” said Shoeless, “I vote yes.”
“Oh, brother,” said Lauren.
It was unanimous, and the group chose me to present our proposal to Mrs. Reed.
The other groups from my class all gave their proposals orally. Their spokesperson simply stood and explained what the group wanted to do. When my turn came, I said, “My group needs to present a written proposal.”
“Oh?” said Mrs. Reed. “Why is that?” I think she suspected that we weren’t ready and were trying to buy extra time, but I had been writing down our proposed project while the other groups presented their ideas.
I held up my paper and Sophie’s contest entry. “If you read our proposal, I think you’ll understand,” I said.
Mrs. Reed looked unconvinced, but she took the two papers. She read my group’s proposal first, in which I explained about Dunbar’s rules and how Mom could lose her job. I could see her expression change as she read what Sophie had written. When she had finished reading, she said, “Your proposal is approved. Please stay in for a few minutes during afternoon recess so that I can talk to you about it.”
I looked at Lauren, Abby, and Hunter. They were grinning at me. Jelly Bean and Shoeless high-fived each other. Our project was approved. Now all we had to do was figure out how to make it work.
When the other kids left for recess, my group hovered around Mrs. Reed’s desk.
“This will not be an official class project if we can’t talk about it in class,” she said, “but I am willing to give you credit for it, anyway. However, you will need to tell your mother what you are doing, Emmy.”
I gulped. “I can’t do that,” I said. “If she knew, then she would make us stop.”
“I do not condone hiding your actions from your parents,” she said. “What if the secret gets out? What if someone at Dunbar’s finds out what you’re doing?”
“If that happens,” I said, “I want to be able to say that Mom didn’t know anything about it. I can say she told me at the start that I couldn’t help Sophie, and she had no idea that I had gone ahead.”
Mrs. Reed sighed. “In this case,” she said, “perhaps it is better if your parents don’t know what you’re doing. For that matter, it would be better if I didn’t know what you are doing, either, so from here on, you are on your own and if anyone asks if this is a school project, the answer is no.”
We all stared at her. “Your mother is not the only one who could get in trouble for breaking the rules,” she said. “You may go to recess now.”
Excerpted from "Dangerous Deception"
Copyright © 2015 Peg Kehret.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Young Readers Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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"A diverting, fast-paced thriller." —Kirkus Reviews
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