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From the Files of Madison Finn, Book 23
By Laura Dower
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2016 Laura Dower
All rights reserved.
The pug alarm clock startled Madison awake with a bark, bark, ruff.
Even Madison's real-life pug, Phin, hated the clock. He wiggled across Madison's covers and knocked it over with a push of his wet snout. "Ruff!" Phin barked as if to say, "Be quiet! I'm the only pug around here!"
Thankfully, it was still only Sunday. She'd forgotten to turn off the alarm. Madison could squeeze in a few extra minutes under the covers, if only her skin didn't feel like it was on fire. Why did her whole body sting so much?
Although it was officially post-summer and the calendar month read October, weather remained taffy-sticky and the sun was still fire-hot in the middle of the day. What else could explain Madison Finn's radioactive glow?
On Saturday, Maddie had been outdoors almost the entire day with her dad and stepmom, Stephanie, on the "harvest festival circuit." Ever since Dad got remarried, he'd been more into establishing "family traditions," and this tour was her stepmom's idea of tradition. They roamed from farm to farm, collecting strangely shaped gourds and searching for the best sugar-dusted apple-cider donut ever.
What Madison didn't realize was this: After a full afternoon picking apples and pumpkins and hiking and sitting in the bright white sun listening to random bands play bluegrass on bales of hay, she would turn a decidedly crispy, unpleasant shade of pink. And now the pain had set in. Stinging, searing skin pain.
"Oooooow, Mooooom!" Madison called out from her bed. Even the cool sheets hurt Madison's skin. The air hurt her skin.
Phin jumped on top of Madison, his slimy dog tongue licking her face.
"Phinnie, noooooo!" Madison said, sitting up fast. "I love you, Phin, but your slime is blech."
The puppy landed on the floor with a whimper.
"Moooooom!" Madison howled again.
Mom barged in through the bedroom door a moment later. "What is all this racket?" she cried and pulled Madison's curtains to let in the light. "Oh my stars!" Mom recoiled a little. "Madison Francesca Finn, what happened to your skin?!"
"Yeah ... I guess I forgot to put on sun block yesterday."
"Forgot? You think?" Mom quipped. "Now I have a lobster for a daughter! Fantastic. I can't believe your father didn't notice that you —"
"It's not his fault," Madison said. "It's mine."
Mom threw her hands in the air. "No, it's his. Stephanie is usually so responsible."
This is how it had been for most of the last year. Mom and Dad were semicordial since the Big D (for Divorce), but once Dad remarried, things got strange and testy. Madison guessed Mom was a little jealous even though she and Stephanie talked all the time. Mom didn't have a boyfriend. She didn't even have a maybe boyfriend.
"Get out of bed so I can put some aloe cream on you," Mom said, examining Madison's arms. "This is actually a very bad burn, honey. You're going to peel."
"Ewww. Like an onion?" Madison inched out of bed slowly. "One gross layer at a time?"
"You're more like a tomato to me," Mom interjected. "But I'm not sure tomatoes have layers."
"Don't say anything else about tomatoes, Mom, before I have a chance to catch up ... er, ketchup."
"Ketchup? Really, Madison?" Mom raised an eyebrow and sighed. It was exactly the kind of lame, punny, perfectly awful joke Madison and Dad loved to crack. Mom? Not so much.
"This isn't funny," Mom said seriously as she slathered on the cream.
Like magic, Madison's skin immediately stopped stinging. Ahhhhhhh. At least now she didn't feel like she was cooking from the outside in.
Madison grabbed some baggy, non-fall-like clothes that wouldn't irritate her skin when she put them on. Her faded yellow cotton dress with the cutout heart in the back did the trick. Madison paired it with a blue cotton cardigan she found hanging in her closet. Color coordination was not a current top priority — nothing matched with sunburn, right?
Downstairs at breakfast, Phinnie curled up onto Maddie's feet like he always did, his belly on her toes, waiting for cast-off Oat-Os and crumbles of bacon. Madison gulped down a smoothie, freshly made in Mom's new MegaBlend Blender. Mom was the Queen of Smoothies lately. She whipped up avocado, kale, and celery blends at a moment's notice.
Thankfully, this smoothie was strawberry-banana.
Mom stirred her coffee around and around. Madison knew she was thinking hard about something.
"You okay?" Madison asked.
"I'm always okay." Mom shrugged. "Thanks for asking."
Madison slurped her Oat-Os milk and got up to get herself a second bowl.
"How about you? You okay?" Mom inquired.
"Sure." Madison shrugged. "What do you mean?"
Madison knew what Mom meant, but she didn't feel like discussing anything related to school, snakes, or boys.
"Any more dreams about a particular someone who used to live in Far Hills but moved away?"
"Mom! Are you kidding me? I only had that dream about Hart once!" Madison yelped.
"Yes, well ..."
"Moooom!" Nothing was more embarrassing than Mom poking around in Madison's affairs of the heart — er, Hart.
Fortunately, the only one who had access to all the details about Hart Jones was Madison's laptop. Her computer files had heard about HIM all summer long.
Just when I think I have everything: straight A's, a busyfunawesome summer lineup, a killer tan, a new desk in my bedroom painted ORANGE, a dog who loves me, AND a boyfriend (vs. friend who is a boy, which is not even half as good ...) Then WHAMMO, everything crashes down hard in the fall.
Let's rewind: great trips this summer. I mean, I WENT TO JAPAN!!! Mom was filming there with Budge Films, and she was allowed to bring me. My World = officially rocked! The sushi was sooooo perfect. Duh!
And I also did a road trip with Dad and Steph back to Texas. So cool, well actually HOT — it was like 110 degrees in the shade.
BUT nothing prepared me for the stuff that I would be missing then and now.
Rude Awakening: The more things change, the more things stay the LAME.
Translation: Madison Finn 1, Hart Jones 0
Hart wrote to me like every other day in June and July. But once August got here, he was GONZO. And September went by without a peep! Where did HJ disappear to? What is the matter with HIM??? PXT!!!
Gramma Helen once said that absence makes the heart grow fonder. But absence in this case, through the summer months, did not appear to be making Madison's Hart grow any fonder. So when Mom started in with questions about what was going on with Hart and his emails, Madison's stomach ached with the truth.
Truth was, she'd been writing to him for months.
Sk8ingboy OMG Where R U???
Sk8ingboy Remember When?
Sk8ingboy Did U get this?
Sk8ingboy Fw: Remember When?
Sk8ingboy Fw: Fw: Remember When?
Sk8ingboy Summer is HERE!!!!!!
BalletGrl Where's Hart?
BalletGrl Where's Hart?
Hart just hadn't written back.
Madison slurped down the rest of her smoothie and headed downstairs. Mom told her to clean out the part of the basement where they stored all their fall decorations, like the plastic light-up pumpkins, leafy wreaths, standing scarecrow for the front porch, Boo! sign for the door, and other Halloweenie stuff. The spookiest holiday of all would be here soon.
After cleaning for what seemed like hours, Madison headed upstairs with all the decorations. As usual, there was so much homework to be done — she always left it until late on Sunday. Eighth grade was one book report, lab, and test after the next. Her friend Egg's mom, Señora Díaz, was now teaching eighth-grade Spanish, and even she was tougher than tough. It was not necessarily a good thing to have your friend's mom be your teacher.
Madison went online to work, but an instant message popped up from her long-distance keypal.
Of course Madison relied on her BFFs from school, girls like Aimee and Fiona. But having a friend who was completely unrelated to her daily life was cool — even if that friend lived too far away to hang out with offline. There was no "Hey, I'm coming over!" or "Let's meet at the library!" Sometimes it almost felt like Bigwheels was an imaginary friend. They'd never played Barbie dolls. They'd never been to the movies or the mall together. They'd never sat and eaten an entire bag of nacho chips with root beers — Madison's favorite of all time. But that didn't stop Bigwheels, aka Victoria, from knowing all Madison's secrets and vice versa.
Madison wondered: What makes a friend real?
After Madison said good-bye to Bigwheels, she knew she had to study but instead, she scooted into her inbox just for a moment. As she settled into her chair, Phin reappeared and curled up close to Madison's feet, snorting and breathing kind of heavy. His paws moved forward in fits and starts like he was swimming or running somewhere. Was he having one of his awesome doggy dreams about some made-up doggy paradise?
Wetwinz; MadFinn My NEW SHOWWW
Fw: I found this
Boop-Dee-Doop Madison F. Finn Order Shipment
"Roooooowf." Phin was moving and talking. He sounded upset, making all these little "rrrroooo" growls. Madison leaned in to pet his head and rub his belly.
"Shhhhhh, puppy dog," Madison whispered as he twitched around.
Madison scrolled through some emails.
Bigwheels sent an email apology for cutting out of the IM chat earlier. Her little sister, nicknamed "the tornado" had knocked over a terrarium on a bookshelf — which just happened to house two live frogs! Apparently, the entire thing dumped onto the floor and Bigwheels's wheelchair. It was quite a disaster. Madison had to laugh when she read what had happened.
BalletGrl, aka Aimee, had sent an email to all the "girls" (Madison, Fiona, Lindsay, and Madhur) about a PJ mani-pedi party she wanted to have at her house in honor of the reality-TV show that might be coming to Far Hills. (Key word was might because chances were not so good.) Still, Aimee wanted her fifteen minutes of fame — or more.
How had it all happened?
When Aimee and some other girls from Madame Elaine's Dance Studio appeared in a traveling recital over the summer, they were "discovered" by a casting agent in search of a crew of young dancers. Ever since the major smash hit Dance Kids, TV networks had been prowling around for more shows to bring in a big audience. The show featured kids from dance schools all over the USA — and Madame Elaine's was on the list of possible locations. Producers decided that they didn't just want dancing footage either. There was a chance Aimee's actual house might be on the show, too! It was a slim chance, but still.
Someday — Madison was sure of it — Aimee Gillespie would skip over all the maybes and just get famous. She had the looks and personality and that "it" factor that makes reality-show judges push buzzers. Madison imagined how cool it would be one day to open a magazine and see Aimee en pointe, arms and back arched in perfect ballerina style, hair in a beautiful dancer's knot.
But what would Madison Francesca Finn be famous for? Besides FREAKING OUT about Hart Jones?
TOTALLY was Madison's one-word reply to Aimee's party invite. Then Madison opened Fiona's email. It had been forwarded, so there were a bunch of old emails attached at the bottom. As Madison read, her chest thumped.
Subject: Fw: Fw: COMING TO FAR HILLS!!!!!
Date: Sun 8 Oct 11:06 AM
Chet sent me this. Whaaaaaaa?!!!! MORONS! And I mean Chet and Hart. What IS this???? Call me NOW.
Subject: Fw: COMING TO FAR HILLS!!!!!
Date: Sat 7 Oct 11:46 PM
Yo hart is coming for a visit next week lets convince mom to throw a dinner party or something
Subject: COMING TO FAR HILLS!!!!!
Date: Wed 4 Oct 9:11 PM
Hey man whats going on!? OMG my school is so hard this year. My teachers are ok. I think I'm finally getting used to everything here but really I still miss far hills so much. How are things? Say hi to Dan and Egg. I miss Dan's giant mansion LOL. I want to see everyone when I come to town. My mom and dad and I will be there next week I think I don't know the time yet. Can we hang out? Tell your sister. I'll message Maddie.
Bye for now, dude.
Madison read it again. And again. She wasn't sure how to feel.
Hart wrote to Chet? It didn't make sense. He wrote to Chet first? Where had Hart been for the past six weeks? He sent NO EMAIL AT ALL in the month of September.
And then, like some sort of weird — no, insane — sign from the universe, Madison's computer pinged with an IM.
No way. NO WAY.
Madison gasped out loud even though she was alone in her room.
It pinged again.
Just like that, as if summoned from the virtual world and a whole lot of worrying, Hart Jones, known online as Sk8ingboy, appeared.
Madison took a deep breath and started to type back.
She wished she could play it frosty cool, but after weeks of obsessing, that was impossible.
Madison got this twisted feeling in her belly. New email? Hart changed his email in August? Of course! Well, that explained everything.
Wait. It didn't explain why he hadn't written to her from the new account.
She could almost hear Aimee and Fiona shouting, "Maddie! That is the lamest excuse EVER! Forget him!"
Madison felt the anger and disappointment that she'd been pushing down come bubbling right up to the surface.
Words were lava, and she was the volcano.
Oh, no! By mistake Madison hit the SEND button two times too many!
Hart didn't write anything else after that.
Madison knew she had to write something else quickly, but she couldn't think of the right thing to say.
At her feet, Phin stretched out, scratching the carpet in front of her, and started to moan. He was trying to scratch an itch on his own back on the floor. It also looked a little like he was choking.
"Phinnie?" Madison abandoned her orange laptop and crouched down on the floor. His body was warm, but his little doggy chest was lifting up and down rapidly.
"Phinnie, are you okay?"
Phin looked up at Madison with his big brown eyes. They were wet, almost like he was crying. He was clearly in pain. His breathing was getting slower.
"MOOOOOOOM!" Madison wailed. "Mom, come quick! Something is really wrong with Phin!"CHAPTER 2
The Far Hills Animal Clinic was busy for a Sunday afternoon. Madison and Mom raced inside with Phin, past two cats, a parakeet, and some kind of animal in a cage with a towel over it. Poor Phinnie's little pug body had gone entirely limp.
Dr. Wing came right out of the back office when he saw them come in. "Madison!" he cried, leaning in to take Phin out of her arms quickly. "Was he injured?"
"I don't know what, but he's having trouble. ..."
Madison's waved her arms in the air dramatically as she explained how he was dreaming and then his breathing changed. Mom rested a hand on Madison's back to calm her down.
"It may have been the dog food. I got a new brand. Here's a can." Mom produced a can of Tuff-E-Tenders.
Excerpted from Back Online by Laura Dower. Copyright © 2016 Laura Dower. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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