As soon as you RSVP to the Kommissary Kombat Gala, you get an anonymous email instructing you to go outside IMMEDIATELY. You bolt for the door, but then decide you’d better change your clothes and brush your teeth first, just in case. By the time you make it to the front stoop, a long white golf cart is shooting away from the curb.
“Hey!” You wave both arms. Jump up and down. Run down the steps so fast your elderly neighbor stops trimming her hedges to call over them, asking if everything’s okay.
You don’t answer. You can’t. You need all your breath to catch up to the golf cart—which you finally do when it brakes for a little girl crossing the street on her bicycle.
You stop short and knock. The golf cart door whooshes open.
“A basket,” the driver says, looking straight ahead.
“What?” you ask.
“Every bike should have one. With daisies and tulips and compartments for loose change and peppermints.” He tears his gaze away from the windshield and smiles down at you. “I’m going to put that in the suggestion box.”
“Okay.” You note his red fanny pack and shiny loafers. “Are you a Good Samaritan?”
“Are you a good kid?”
You pause. “Yes?”
He shrugs. “Hop on anyway. Any friend of Capital T’s is worth a shot.”
Heart thumping, you dash up the steps. You expect to see other passengers, but besides you and the driver, the golf cart’s empty. As you head for a seat in the middle, you wonder if you should make sure you’re going where you think you are. Before you can decide, the Good Samaritan hits the gas and the golf cart flies forward so fast, houses and trees blur. Then the windows darken and you can no longer see outside—you assume because you’re going to Kilter, and the school wants to keep its location a secret from visitors.
You look away from the windows and find a gleaming silver cart in the aisle next to your seat. It holds a platter filled with cookies, cupcakes, popcorn, fish sticks, and your very favorite snack.
“Fuel up!” the Good Samaritan calls back. “You’ll need the energy!”
You select a snack and take a bite. It’s a million times more delicious than the best you’ve ever had. Your eyes close as you savor the taste.
When your eyes open again, the golf cart has stopped. The windows are clear. You see a large sign rimmed in bright white light bulbs. A digital clock flashes passing seconds.
WELCOME TO THE ANNUAL KILTER ACADEMY
You jump up. Shove the snack cart aside and sprint down the aisle. Thank the Good Samaritan for the ride as you leap down the golf cart steps.
“OMG! Is it you? It IS! You came! YAY!”
“Great! You’re just in time.”
“Well don’t just stand there. Show us what you’ve got.”
Gabby. Seamus. Abe. They’re standing by the Kanteen entrance a few feet away. Gabby jumps up and down. Seamus smiles. Abe gives you a slow, suspicious onceover.
Lemon holds open the door. He doesn’t say anything, but he does nod once when you say hello and pass by.
Inside, the party’s already underway. Loud music pumps from enormous speakers. Hundreds of silver balloons bob gently near the ceiling. Silver streamers hang from the rafters. Tall silver sparklers serve as table centerpieces. The tables themselves are set around the room’s perimeter; they form a large circle around one super long table covered in shimmery silver fabric. The fabric is lumpy, and given the way Troublemakers eye it while talking and laughing, you guess it’s hiding something important.
Seamus is standing next to you. You lean toward him. “What’s under—”
“Welcome, Troublemakers!” a familiar female voice booms overhead, interrupting you. “Are you ready to be on your best worst behavior?”
The room explodes into cheers, screams, and applause. A large, clear globe lowers from the ceiling and stops above the center of the long table. The noise, which already hurts your ears, grows louder as Annika’s face appears on the round, rotating screen.
“That’s what I like to hear!” she declares with a smile. “Now, those of you who have attended past galas know why this night is one of the most exciting of the entire school year. For those of you who haven’t, allow me to explain…”
The round screen spins faster. Annika keeps speaking as her face is replaced with images of water balloons. Flaming arrows. Pogo sticks. Colorful wigs. Spray-paint cans. As each weapon fades, a new one appears.
“The Kommissary, your one-stop school shop, goes to great lengths to stock the newest, coolest, most troubling troublemaking items on the market. Once a year, after carefully narrowing down the choices, the Kommissary staff relies on you, their valued customers, to try out items and help with final selections.”
The screen spins even faster. Across the room, a door opens. Six people wearing silver tracksuits and aviator sunglasses file in. As they wave and grin, the students cheer and clap even louder. They look older, so you guess they’re troublemaking tutors.
“That’s why you’re here tonight,” Annika continues. “To help, all you have to do is what you always do. Make trouble! Have fun!” She waits for the fresh wave of applause to die down. “But of course, what’s a Kilter party without a little friendly competition?”
The clear globe stops. Its screen fills with another digital timer.
“The long table before you holds an exciting assortment of some of the latest innovations in troublemaking technology. When I give the signal, you’ll make a break for the item you’d like to try. We haven’t brought something for everyone—so move fast!”
All around you Troublemakers exchange looks and inch closer to the table.
“After choosing your item, you’ll have THIRTY MINUTES to use said item to surprise, startle, or otherwise “get” your fellow Troublemakers. The playing field is wide open, so feel free to leave the Kanteen. Each time you succeed, you’ll earn demerits. Success will be determined by official gala evaluators: the Good Samaritans, and your Kilter instructors.”
A dozen white spotlights shoot out from the screen. Glancing around you see several Good Samaritans scattered throughout the room. You also see Houdini, Wyatt, Fern, Samara, Devin, and Lizzie. They’re armed with K-Paks, presumably to keep track of Troublemakers and demerits, and look friendly yet serious as Annika talks.
“When the thirty minutes have expired, scores will be tabulated. The Troublemaker with the most demerits will get to KEEP the item of his or her choice!”
The cheers now are deafening, but you hardly notice. Because behind the long table, the troublemaking tutors have taken the shimmery silver fabric in their hands. With one quick motion, they reveal the troublemaking items.
You push and wiggle your way to the front of the crowd. When you see the selection, your chin drops. Your palms grow moist. Your pulse hammers in your ears.
Spread across the table is an assortment of items in seven separate stacks that seem…almost disappointingly mundane. In a quick glance, you see what appears to be a stack of microphones, tape measures, pairs of sneakers, hula hoops, bags of gumballs, mysterious looking red bags, and equally mysterious looking black boxes.
“IT’S UP TO YOU, TROUBLEMAKERS!” Annika sings. “WHAT DO YOU CHOOSE? WHAT…DO…YOU…CHOOSE?”