With the help of the wax boy, who answers to the name Dud, Poppy tries to find out who was behind the fire. Along the way, she discovers that some of the townspeople are starting to look a little . . . waxy. Can they extinguish the evil plot?
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|File size:||7 MB|
|Age Range:||12 - 18 Years|
About the Author
Gina Damico is the author of Hellhole, Wax, and the grim-reapers-gone-wild books of the Croak trilogy. She has also dabbled as a tour guide, transcriptionist, theater house manager, scenic artist, movie extra, office troll, retail monkey, yarn hawker and breadmonger. A native of Syracuse, New York, she now lives in Los Angeles with her husband, two cats, one dog, and an obscene amount of weird things purchased from yard sales. Visit her website at www.ginadami.co.
Read an Excerpt
Pick a fight with a computer
POPPY PALLADINO HAD TRIPPED, FALLEN, AND HUMILIATED herself on live television in front of thirty million Americans, but convincing the CVS touchscreen to reverse its stance on her bungled self-checkout transaction—that was pure torture.
“Help is on the way!” the computer chirped.
“I don’t need help,” Poppy told it. “I need you to take my coupon.”
The pharmacist leaned out over her pharmacy battlements. “You need some help, hon?”
“I’m told it’s already on the way.”
The pharmacist came to her aid, a woman with limp hair and glasses that in all likelihood had been swiped from the nearby rotating eyewear display. She must have been a recent transplant; Poppy had never seen her around town before. The name tag on her blue polo shirt said JEAN!
“Hi, Jean!” Poppy said. Politeness went a long way in the art of savings.
“Hi there. What seems to be the problem?”
“Sorry to pull you away from your drugs. It’s my coupon.” Poppy showed her the crumpled-up coupon smelling of receipt ink and old gum that had been trawling around the bottom of her bag since her mother imparted it two weeks earlier. “It didn’t work.”
“Well, let’s give it another try.” She took the coupon from Poppy and smoothed it between her hands, as if Poppy had not done this half a dozen times by now.
Only twenty minutes were left before she had to get back to school for rehearsal, but Poppy remained patient—albeit less than thrilled to have to sit through yet another round of Let the Adult Fix the Thing That the Idiot Teenager Broke. “The machine told me to scan my coupons,” she explained, “so I did. Then it beeped. Then it scolded me. Then it stopped talking altogether and decided to have an existential crisis instead.”
“Sorry about that. These things can be finicky sometimes.” JEAN! put a hand on her chin and looked from the screen to Poppy. “Did you wave it across the scanner in a fluid mo—”
She froze. Her mascara-laden lids began to blink rapidly. “Wait a sec. Are you . . .”
“Yes,” Poppy said through the tiny hole her mouth had formed. “Yes, I am.” Immediately she looked down at the floor and rubbed the scar at the edge of her hairline, her default reaction whenever someone recognized her. It wasn’t her favorite reflex; she’d prefer to strike a heroic stance and burst out of the nearest plate-glass window in an epic display of bravado and fearlessness. But some bug in her internal programming wouldn’t allow it.
JEAN! put a hand to her mouth, which Poppy could tell was twitching at the edges. “Oh, my.”
“Poor thing.” Despite the woman’s best efforts to be polite, her eyes crinkled in that way that suggested there was a laugh coming, a bombastic chortle barreling its way up her throat with no regard for tact or civility or the feelings of an emotionally fractured seventeen-year-old. “How are you holding up, dear?”
Poppy’s tight mouth contorted into a tight smile. “I’m fine.”
On paper, at least. Poppy’s therapist had officially labeled her “No Longer Traumatized,” a phrase that her best friend, Jill, had found so hilarious, she had it printed on a T-shirt and gave it to Poppy for her birthday. “Everything’s fine,” she reiterated.
The pharmacist, fully embracing the fineness of the situation, was fighting the giggles so hard, her neck wattle was quivering. “It wasn’t that bad, you know.”
Poppy was beginning to think that a dollar off deodorant wasn’t worth this level of ballyhoo. “I’m sorry, but the coupon . . .”
“Oh, yes! You know what, hon? Just take it.” She pushed the deodorant into Poppy’s hand, then grabbed a package of Skittles and a ChapStick and piled those on top as well. “After all you’ve been through? You deserve it.”
Poppy considered her offerings. “You’re right. After all I’ve been through, I do deserve the promise of moist, kissable lips.”
JEAN! gave her a loving pat on the hand and ushered Poppy toward the exit, gallantly waving her arm at the sensors to make the automatic doors swish open.
The doors closed behind Poppy as she left, but not fast enough to muffle the explosion of laughter from within.
∗ ∗ ∗
Poppy had not always been America’s preferred object of ridicule. Six months prior, no one outside Paraffin had known her name. And within Paraffin, she was simply That Girl. The Blond One. With a Penchant for Maple Ice Cream and Musical Theater.
She’d had no reason to suspect that trying out for Triple Threat would be a bad idea. After all, she could sing, act, and dance, thereby satisfying the trio of purported hazards. And she wasn’t delusional, either—it was more or less agreed upon by all who saw her perform that she was good. Maybe big-fish-in-a-small-pond good, but certainly not the sort of train wreck those reality show talent competitions love to poke fun at, with goofy sound effects and dramatic close-ups of the judges, their beautiful faces twisted into dual looks of pity and God-given superiority.
She would do right by The Sound of Music. She would make her hometown proud. She would never be relegated to the blooper reel.
But what everyone at home and in the audience at Radio City Music Hall had failed to account for on that steamy June evening was one simple, fateful equation: incompetent stagehands + an inconsiderate preceding act = imminent tragedy.
It wasn’t her fault.
It wasn’t her fault that the El Paso Players were absolute morons and decided to stage the musical number “Be Our Guest” from Beauty and the Beast complete with real food that would be tossed and smashed around on a stage that was already slicker than an ice-skating rink—all while citing their commitment to “authenticity,” as if singing and dancing cutlery were the epitome of realism. It wasn’t her fault that the wreckage got nothing more than a quick mop during the commercial break. It wasn’t her fault that she was scheduled to go on after them. And it certainly wasn’t her fault that she slipped on an errant bit of pie and pudding (en flambé) and crashed to the floor in a pile of screeches and flailing and braids and sensible Austrian costumery.
It . . . was her fault that she chose to continue with her performance despite the gigantic gash that had opened up in her forehead. Blood gushed down her face as she crooned “‘The hills are alive . . .’” with a sweet, maniacal smile, gamely attempting to look as though she hadn’t been mauled by an Alpine wolf.
Because the show, as everyone knows, must go on.
In the moment, she thought she’d recovered quite well. She didn’t realize that the audience was sitting there horrified, transfixed, and that the judges were yelling for her to stop. She’d plunged gashfirst into the zone, the Theater Zone, and hadn’t snapped out of it until she’d sung through the last note—at which point she realized that she was drenched in gore, her teeth had turned red, and everyone in that theater and in homes across America was pissing themselves with laughter.
Then she passed out from blood loss.
When she regained consciousness, she was no longer the plucky young ingénue from small-town Vermont whom Katy Perry had called “adorbs.” She was Maria von Tripp. Julie Androops. The undisputed queen of the Internet. Clips of her demise got millions of hits in mere hours. Major newspapers printed her photo. Saturday Night Live did a sketch about her.
Of course, not everyone had been mean-spirited. The paramedics had a lot of comforting things to say. She got cards and flowers from well-meaning viewers across the country. Ellen had extended an invitation to her talk show. (Poppy’s parents, fearing overexposure and the opportunity for another dance-related catastrophe, declined.)
But overall, the damage had been done. Her confidence: shattered. Her nails: bitten to the quick. She couldn’t sleep without the aid of Forty Winks, a Grosholtz candle her parents had imposed upon her, insisting that it was scientifically proven (it wasn’t) to induce drowsiness and treat insomnia. And even now, five months later, all it took was a JEAN! to throw a little snicker her way for the wounds of humiliation to be freshly torn anew.
Which was why Poppy was so pleased that her next errand involved the one and only Mr. Kosnitzky, who, she was positive, had never laughed a day in his life.
“Not again,” he muttered when the bell over his shop door rang, slumping as he spotted her head bobbing toward him. He’d recognize his most frequent customer anywhere—blond hair secured with a pencil into a messy bun, the ends pointing up and fanned out into a sunburst. “Why aren’t you in school?” he demanded.
“Good afternoon, sir! I had free period last, so I was allowed to leave early.” Poppy smiled and shook his hand with a practiced combination of firmness and warmth, as if she were running for office.
She was, in a way. And not just because she’d been elected president of Paraffin High’s drama club, the Giddy Committee, in a blitzkrieg of a campaign that the Paraffin High School Gazette called “well-run,” “hard-fought,” and “glitter-and-elbow-macaroni-fueled.” (Also “unnecessary,” as she had run unopposed.) But in a larger sense, Poppy’s life post Triple Threat was now one big campaign. A drive to win back the hearts and minds of everyone she’d ever met or would meet. A crusade to show all potential college admission boards that she was more than just a joke, more than just That Girl. The One Who Sang and Fell and Bled Everywhere. Ha-Ha, Remember That? Pull Up the Video, Let’s Watch It Again.
Two and a half months into the school year, some progress had been made in restoring her reputation; people were finally starting to treat her like normal again, and she’d been going above and beyond to remind everyone that she was the same old Poppy she always was. She got stellar grades. She aced her SATs. She clogged her schedule with extracurriculars. Sooner or later, she thought, everyone would be forced to admit that they were wrong about her, simply through her sheer force of being relentlessly, unequivocally respectable.
Case in point: She was still shaking the engraver’s hand. “How is Nancy, sir?” she asked with genuine concern. “That pesky yeast infection clear up?”
“Er, yes,” he muttered, pulling his hand away. Most people in Paraffin were comfortable with the small-town inevitability of knowing one another’s personal details, but Mr. Kosnitzky preferred to keep his wife’s yeast where it belonged: at home. “What can I do for you, Poppy?” He spit out her name in a bouncy yet mocking tone, as though resentful that he was being forced to say something cheerful.
Poppy couldn’t blame him; she hated her name too. Despised everything about it. Its ditziness, its whimsicality, the sheer Britishness of it. The way it was full of round, unwieldy letters. It undermined her, she felt—or, at the very least, made her feel like a googly-eyed Muppet that had wandered off set.
(Her father claimed that it had all been her mother’s doing. He’d wanted to name her either Coolbreeze or Jubilation. But Poppy’s parents were on another plane of crazy altogether.)
She plunked an oddly shaped award onto the counter.
Mr. Kosnitzky sighed. “Another one?”
“Yes.” She slid a piece of paper toward him. “But it’s not for me this time.”
He read the name off the paper. “Connor Galpert?”
Sighing again, he picked up the trophy and held it to the light. This one had a faux-marble base, like many of the others she’d brought in over the years, but where there usually sat a plastic gold figure of a shuttlecock (badminton team) or a paintbrush (Art Club) or a jazz hand (the Merry Maladies, a group Poppy had spearheaded that went into local hospitals to foist cheer and Broadway songs upon defenseless patients), this particular chunk of gold plastic more closely resembled a large slug.
He waved it at her. “This a turd?”
Poppy stifled a grunt. He was the third one to ask that today. “No, sir.”
Mr. Kosnitzky squinted through the lenses of his plastic-rimmed glasses at the paper Poppy had given him, then at the inscription on the copper plate, frowning as he fed it into the engraving machine. “What does SPCY stand for?”
“The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Yams.”
He raised an eyebrow. “And what does ‘yams’ stand for?”
“Oh, it doesn’t stand for anything, sir. A yam is a type of sweet potato, a starchy tuber that grows in the—”
“I know what a yam is. Why does it need its own society?”
She pulled a pamphlet out of her bag and slid it across the counter with a firm finger. “Mr. Kosnitzky, I don’t want to alarm you, but yam farmers in our state receive, on average, fifty percent less—”
“You don’t say,” he said, finishing the inscription and fitting it back onto the base. “And why aren’t you in school?”
“I already told you, sir—I had free period last today, so I was allowed to leave early.” When he glared at her, she added, “It’s in the handbook.”
He went back to his work, grumbling. Poppy didn’t take his disdain personally; as a rule, Mr. Kosnitzky hated all teenagers. He’d gone so far as to appoint himself Paraffin High’s honorary truant officer. Every morning before opening for business, he’d camp out at his storefront window, scan the town square and its prominent gazebo through a pair of ancient binoculars, and call the principal’s office the second he spotted anyone unlucky enough to appear adolescent. He was correct roughly sixty percent of the time, and he still felt pretty good about the other forty percent because he still got to yell into the phone.
“So the farmers want this Connor’s name engraved onto a giant yam for, what, heroic weeding efforts or something?” he asked.
“Oh, no,” said Poppy. “Connor won the yam-eating contest. It was all part of the first annual Paraffin Yamboree, to raise money for the farmers. Didn’t you hear about it? I put up flyers all over town. There are two in your front window.”
Mr. Kosnitzky frowned and looked over her shoulder. “I don’t remember posting those.”
“I took the liberty. And it’s a good thing I did—we got a great turnout!”
He stared. She beamed. He stared some more. “That’ll be five dollars and six cents.”
She blinked her giant eyes at him—always a disarming gesture, as they were slightly too large for her head—and placed a neat stack of dollar bills on the counter. “Can I leave some yamphlets too?”
“Pamphlets,” she said, fanning a stack of no less than a hundred. “About the yams.”
He took her money and started punching buttons on his antiquated cash register as the door bell rattled again. “Be with you in a minute,” he said to the new customer, who stepped up behind Poppy, boots screeching on the tiled floor.
Poppy could tell from the combined scent of Orbit gum and cheap body spray that it was a teenager. Tall, judging by the way he blocked the light from outside. A watch jangled on his wrist, one of those oversize titanium gimmicks that were bought only by scuba divers or people who wanted to appear as cool as scuba divers. He let out a low chuckle, then advanced another step.
“‘The hills are aliiiiiive,’” he quietly sang.
Poppy’s ears reddened. She glanced at his stringy reflection in a plaque on the wall.
The self-appointed first family of Paraffin, the Bursaw clan ran every inch of the town—or at least every inch that the candle factory didn’t touch. The matriarch, a corpulent floral-print-wearing old woman who resembled a roll of wallpaper and was known colloquially as Miss Bea, served as Paraffin’s mayor. Her campaign motto, an extraordinary woman, had blanketed the town for years, everyone still too fearful of her sparkly-eyed wrath to take any of the posters down. Her son, a middle-aged blowhard called Big Bob, sat on the town council and was widely assumed to be next in line for the mayor’s office. And his son, Blake, treated Paraffin as his own personal dog park, pissing on everything just to mark it as his.
The three of them lived together in an ostentatious mansion modeled on the White House and worked hard to maintain their position as the Worst. Everyone knew it. Everyone thought it.
But no one said it. Not out loud, at least. And so they got away with everything.
“With the sound of loooosers,” Blake kept on singing.
“That doesn’t even make sense,” Poppy said under her breath. What was he doing in a trophy shop? The kid had never won anything in his life. Except maybe a World’s Biggest Douchebag contest.
Poppy nearly laughed at the image of what a giant douchebag trophy would look like, but she reminded herself not to engage. Ever since senior year started, Blake had proved himself to be terribly adept at wreaking havoc upon the tatters of Poppy’s once-pristine reputation, orchestrating a reign of mockery that was showing no signs of toppling. The whole school was still talking about the Halloween party debacle two weeks prior, of which Blake had been the chief architect. Poppy had exacted some measure of revenge with a well-timed pantsing in gym class—and the fact that he’d been wearing SpongeBob boxers was a nice bonus—but she’d never be able to top his level of malice.
To Blake, bullying was an art. And Poppy was his muse.
She would not give him the satisfaction of turning around. Yet her palms were getting sweaty, leaving gross condensation marks when she tapped them on the glass counter. “Let’s hurry it up, Mr. Koz.”
“I’m trying to get rid of the pennies. Just a second.” After what seemed like eons, he shut the cash register drawer perhaps a little harder than was necessary and dumped the change into her waiting hands. “Here.”
“Thanks!” Without making eye contact with Blake, she whirled around and bolted for the door.
“Wait!” Mr. Kosnitzky called after her. “You forgot your turd!”
Poppy froze in her tracks.
Well. That ought to do it.
Blake promptly burst into a hyenalike fit of giggling. His lanky frame, stretched taut and tough like a piece of jerky, doubled over. “Turd?”
Poppy slunk back to the counter and grabbed the trophy out of Mr. Kosnitzky’s hand. “Yam.” She stuffed it into her bag and headed for the exit once more, glaring so hard at Blake that she missed the handle and slammed into the door, prompting yet another explosion of laughter.
Gritting her teeth, Poppy darted out of the shop, trying—yet not succeeding—to hold her head high.