“Who are you and how did you get here?!” demanded a redheaded girl. Ellie closed her eyes and shook her head, shaking brown bangs out of her eyes.
But before Ellie could answer, the girl turned her back to Ellie, and picked up some white garments.
The girl held the clothes out to Ellie. “You were saying?” she asked
“I was saying, my name is Ellie and I don’t know how I got here. Where are we, anyway?” The girl handed Ellie the stack of clothes she was holding. “I don’t know where we are, either!” she replied.
“You can change over there,” the girl pointed to a big box set in a corner.
Ellie stepped into the makeshift room. “Oh, and by the way, I’m Madison, but you can call Maddi!’ the girl exclaimed happily. “And I won’t peek.”
Maddi was true to her word and didn’t peek. As Ellie came out from the stall, carrying her old clothes, Maddi stuck out her hand, causing Ellie to drop her pants and shoes. “Hi Ellie!” Madison shook Ellie’s hand violently. “Um, hi.” Ellie replied.
Maddi took Ellie’s clothes and started folding them. Another girl joined the welcome comity.
“Hi, I’m Ellie!” Ellie waved.
“All done!” Maddi chirped. “Regan, that’s Ellie. She’s new here!”
“I got that.”
Regan sat down next to Madison. Maddi scooched the folded clothes to Regan. Regan picked them up and stood. “I’ll take theses to Lily,” she said.
Once Regan left, Ellie asked “Who is Lily?”
“Well, Lily is . . . uh . . .” Maddi trailed off, thinking.
“Why is everyone wearing white clothes except for her?” Ellie asked.
“I dunno,” Maddi shrugged.
“And why–” Ellie was interrupted by a scream.
A girl, tied to chair was falling through the roof of the prison!
“Help! Someone help me!” the girl screamed.
Maddi and Ellie ran over to help the girl. I guess our conversation about Lily will have to wait, Ellie thought.
But before they could help her, Amy, another prisoner, ran over and untied her.
“Thanks,” the girl said. “I’m Natalie.”
Maddi immediately ran to the stairwell and shouted, “There’s another one!”
Amy walked over to Ellie and stuck her hand out. “I’m Amy,” she said.
“Ellie,” Ellie replied.
Regan came to the last step on the stairs and threw some clothes at Natalie. “Bombs away!” she yelled.
“So, Lily?” Ellie asked, sitting in the chair that was now in their prison.
“Let’s wait for Natalie to get back from changing!” Maddi suggested. “Then I don’t have to explain it twice!”
Natalie came out of the makeshift room and asked, “I couldn’t help hearing. Who’s Lily?”
“I’ll tell you now!” Madison replied. “Oh, and don’t tell anyone, but I’m Maddi.”
“And mad,” Regan mumbled.
“Well, Lily is– over there!” Maddi pointed.
Everyone looked up the stairs to see Lily. “I think everybody should take a seat,” she said quietly. “I need to tell you my story.”
Everyone took a seat, as Lily suggested, and she started her sad tale.
“My name is Lily, I’m twelve years old. I’ve been her the longest: two years. I was kidnapped when I was ten, and brought to this place. Before I was captured, I lived with my mom and dad. I love singing, and want to be a singer. If we ever get out of here.”
“Why do we have to wear white, and you don’t?” Ellie asked.
“I don’t know,” Lily answered.
“Do you know where we are?” asked Natalie.
“No,” Lily replied.
Amy came down the stairs that lead to a small room where Lily liked to sing. “I’m tired,” she yawned.
“Yes! Let us go to bed!” Maddi exclaimed. “Regan! Go fetch us some bedding!”
“Whatever,” Regan mumbled.
Maddi showed Ellie and Natalie where everybody slept. “I sleep here.” She pointed to a patchwork blanket.
“You can sleep here, and here.”
Regan came into the room with bedding for Natalie and Ellie.
“Here.” Regan shoved a white pillow and blue checkered blanket in to Ellie’s arms.
Natalie started making her bed.
As Natalie and Ellie climbed into bed, Lily came in.
“Wow. She has a nightgown? No fair!” Ellie whispered to Natalie.
“Have you ever tried to escape?” asked Natalie.
“I did. Once,” Lily said.
“Oh, and I take it you didn’t make it,” Natalie said.
“Well then, let’s come up with another plan! This time one that will really work,” Ellie suggested.
“Brilliant, Ellie! I think I have an idea! How about the way I got here? I fell. That means there’s a way out, up!”
“What do you think, Regan? Will you help me come up with a plan?”
“Yeah, I guess so.”
Everyone gathered to help come up with a plan to escape.
“Oh, oh! This isn’t related to the plan, but are your and Ellie’s parents famous?” Maddi asked Natalie.
“Well, my mom is a fashion designer, and I’m a model,” Natalie replied. “Ellie?”
“My parents’ horses have both won the Triple Crown, and I race horses.”
“Wow!” Maddi exclaimed. “My mom is a movie star! I act, too. Reagan and her parents are athletes, and Amy’s dad is a weather announcer!”
Once they had gone over the whole plan three times, Lily realized something. “Um, guys, you know he can hear us.”
“Who?” asked Natalie.
“The person that kidnapped us.”
“What!? No! Our plan is ruined!!!” Natalie wailed.
“But wait, Natalie. I have a plan. One that I know will work,” Lily whispered. “My plan. The one that didn’t work. It will work with more people. And ‘He’ already thinks we are gonna do your plan! Listen up . . .”
The next morning at 7:00, everyone was still sleeping.
Everyone, that is, except for Lily.
Lily came into the sleeping room and shook Ellie awake. “Elinor, wake up!” Lily whispered.
“Huh?” Ellie asked drowsily.
“Wake up Natalie. Pass it on.” Lily replied.
“Wake up, Nat!” Ellie tugged on Natalie’s hands. She pointed at Amy. “And get her up.”
Once everybody was awake, Maddi asked “Lily, why are you wearing white? Like the rest of us?”
“Because I’m tired of being different.”
“And why did you put that very bright ribbon in our hair? You know that’s against the rules!”
“Well, since we are escaping today, I don’t think that we need to listen to the rules. And that is why . . .
“I brought all these accessories for you guys to make your outfits you.”
Everyone climbed out of their blankets and started picking accessories.
“This is going to be so much fun!” Maddi exclaimed, grabbing her things and dashing to the changing room.
Everyone was just standing around, talking, waiting for Maddi to come out from behind the box.
“So, how do you like it?” Maddi asked as she stepped out from behind the box, twirling.
“It’s . . . uh . . . very you?” Regan said.
“Don’t worry, Maddi, it’s very unique,” Ellie reassured her.
Once they were all changed, the girls gathered in the sleeping area.
“Guys, I need to tell you something,” Natalie started. “I-I’m a traitor.”
“What?!” Amy exclaimed. “Did you tell ‘him’ what are plan is!?”
“No.” Natalie said. “I’m betraying him. He is my step-dad. He threw me down here, and he said that I needed to know what your plan was, because he knew that you would hatch one soon, then tell him what it was. I’m not gonna do that.”
She took a deep breath, then yelled:
“LET”S ESCAPE AND BE WHO WE ARE!!!!”
“Yes!!!!!” the rest of the girls screamed.
“THEN LET”S GO BE FREE!!!!!”
Lily waved, showing the girls to follow. She lead them down a narrow hallway.
“Over here, guys.” Lily motioned the group over to a large crack in the wall.
There was a room on the other side of the crack, and another crack that wasn’t large enough to fit them, but Lily told everyone to throw their bedding through the crack.
They were above ground. There was no wall above their heads. The were almost free.
“Why are there no guards around?” Maddi asked
“Because they heard the first plan, and are guarding the places we had said we were going to be,” Regan told her.
“This way,” Lily said, dashing out from their hiding place.
The girls climbed up a giant boulder that had been put there to block a massive crack. But there was just enough crack left at the top to squeeze through.
“Guys, there’s water up here!” Regan called softly from on top of the boulder.
“Below?” Lily asked, crawling up beside Regan.
“It’s coming out of the rock,” Regan explained.
“Will it help us get out of here?” Maddi gave Ellie a boost.
Once everyone had clambered onto the rock, Regan began to explain her plan.
“. . .We’ll form a human chain, and lower ourselves down the waterfall . . .”
“We’re going to get a little wet,” Regan foretold while everyone made a human chain.
“Regan, are you sure this is going to wwwwoooorrrrkkkk!” Ellie slipped and toppled off the waterfall!
“Ellie!” Regan gasped.
She grabbed Ellie . . .
causing everyone to fall down after them!
Ellie started to scream, but Natalie slapped her hand over Ellie’s mouth before the sound passed her lips.
“Oof!” Maddi cried as she struck her head on a rock.
They tried to untangle themselves when they stopped falling.
As they pushed themselves up, Regan said, “I guess we got a little wetter then I expected.”
“Oh,” Maddi moaned.
“Are you okay?” Lily asked, touching Maddi’s head.
Maddi winced. “I-I hit my head on that rock.”
“I’m sure you’ll be fine,” Lily assured.
“Thanks.” Maddi gave a pained smile, then leaned on Lily.
Suddenly, they heard voices!
“I thought I heard someone cryin’ over here,” a male voice said from the other side of the boulder.
“Quick!” Regan hissed, motioning.
They pressed themselves up against the wall, and waited for the guards to leave.
“What was that?” the voice demanded.
“It was probably just the wind,” the other guard said.
After the guards passed, Regan let her breath out.
They girls got up and looked around.
Ellie began to wave. “Over here!” she mouthed.
“Look!” She pointed. “It’s our bedding.”
“Up there!” Amy said.
Above them was the hole they had tossed their things through earlier.
Then they began looking around them.
They were in an alley.
“All these years.” Lily shook her head slowly, and tears sprung to her eyes. “I was so close to home.”
Everyone turned to stare at Lily.
“Uh . . .what?” Ellie asked.
“Don’t you know where we are?!” Lily demanded.
When no one answered, she continued.
“This is Stark Laboratory! Remember? That weird place outside of Star City that everybody avoided because it was creepy?”
“Not that this is important, but, before I got captured, I saw this thing in the newspaper,” Regan said.
“Yes?” Lily asked.
“It was about Stark Laboratory . . . how they found this girl that was missing . . . you.”
“Oh!” Ellie pipped up. “Since we are talking about stuff that won’t help us in any way, I saw something like that in the newspaper, but for Amy.”
A piece of paper blowing out of a dumpster got Regan’s attention.
She stooped over and picked it up.
“Hey guys, look at this.” Regan motioned them over.
Two girls, Elinor Smith, age ten, and Natalie Thomas, age twelve, disappeared yesterday from their homes.
If you see these girls, please contact their parents at . . .
“They noticed we were gone!” Ellie cheered.
“We should really get going,” Lily said. “Before they–” she looked pointedly at the wall, where guards were talking together,”–come to find us.”
“Ellie, you get the bedding,” Regan instructed, folding up the piece of newspaper and sticking it into her belt.
“Is there something to . . . tie this?” Ellie asked, starting to fold the blankets.
“There’s bound to be something in here . . .” Regan began sorting through the dumpster.
“Here, I found you a stretchy thing.” Regan handed the ‘stretchy thing’ to Ellie.
“Thank you, my dear friend, but I need one more.”
“Catch!” Regan called.
“Got it!” Ellie answered.
After looping the ‘stretchy thing’ around two more blanket-pillow sets, Ellie held up the remaining set. “Regan . . .?”
“Argh!” Regan tossed a third ‘stretchy thing’ to Ellie. “You’re in luck!” she called “I found a three-pack of headbands!”
“We should get going,” Lily insisted.
“Could I have a little help here? I’m pretty much being our pack-horse.”
“Natalie will help you!” Lily volunteered.
“What?!” Natalie shrieked. “Me?!”
“Yeah! Here.” Ellie shoved a bundle into Natalie’s face.
“Fine, I’ll play pack-horse with you,” Natalie grumbled.
“Thank you! Okay, let’s go.”
As they left the alley, something fluttering on the breeze caught Lily’s eye.
She pulled two posters off the wall.
Underneath the words were pictures of Ellie and Natalie.
Dr. Stark found these girls outside of his laboratory this morning . . .
When Lily read ‘Dr. Stark’ she crumpled up the posters and shoved them into her pocket. Dr. Stark, she thought angrily.
“Don’t look now, Maddi, but is that another you?” Amy asked, pointing at a girl who look surprisingly like their Maddi.
“What?” Maddi began staring intently at the ‘other her’, who was up on a stage, talking to reporters.
“Madison, can you tell us about the time when you . . .” The young reporter was smiling ear to ear as she got the story.
“Guys, I need to dress up as a reporter, so I can get close enough to know who she is,” Amy said.
“I’ll get it,” Regan volunteered .
Regan dashed back to Amy, carrying a sweatshirt from a nearby chair, a notebook from a trashcan, and a pencil found on the ground.
“Thanks!” Amy took the stuff.
Once in her reporter attire, Amy made her way to the stage.
“Can I have your autograph?” Amy said, trying to sound eager.
“Of course!” the fake Maddi celebrity said.
She signed the paper, then handed it back to Amy.
“The name’s so nice, Mom used it twice!” Fake Maddi quoted.
To look like she was a real reporter, Amy started writing.
This girl is a nutcase. Maddi, I really hope you aren’t this crazy.
Your fake reporter,
As Amy scampered away from the stage, the real Maddi shrieked, “Let me see that!”
“This girl claims to be me!” she exclaimed after reading the signature. “And she also has the same autograph . . .”
“I know this sounds superstitious, but couldn’t that be a clone?” Regan suggested.
“Um . . .”
Suddenly, the puzzle pieces fit together inside Lily’s head.
“Guys! Guys! Guys!”
She dug the ‘found’ posters out of her pocket, smoothed them out, and began waving them over her head.
“That could be a clone! Do any of you remember what happened after you were taken from your homes, but before you found yourselves in the prison? I know that sounds crazy, but . . .”
“No, I don’t,” Ellie shook her head.
Shaking their heads, everyone answered, “No.”
“We could have been unconscious, then cloned, then put in the prison! I know it doesn’t make sense . . .,” Lily shook her head.
“It makes sense,” Amy assured her.
“Be on the lookout,” Lily told them. “For clones, guards, and Dr. Stark.”
“Dr. Stark?” Regan asked. “Who’s he?”
Lily began explaining her theory about being kidnapped by Dr. Stark.
While searching for clones, Amy spotted something in a trashcan.
It was a newspaper.
The headline said:
We are Sad to Announce the Death of Ten Great People
“Um . . . you should probably take a look at this,” Amy said slowly.
Everyone gathered around.
Then, they gasped simultaneously as the read.
The list of names read:
‘Thalia and Tony Madison
Mary and James Smith
Cynthia and Andrew Thomas
Nancy and John Underhill
Megan and Tyler Waters’
Under the story were the death records.
‘Allison and Roger Brooks’
Amy ran over and hugged Lily, who looked like she might cry. Lily’s last name was Brooks. Her parents were dead. Of the six girls, Lily was closest to her family. The Brooks owned a restaurant, and Lily had done her school work there. She had almost always been with her parents. And now they were gone.
“I’m so sorry,” Amy said softly, afraid that she might cry, too.
Lily just closed her eyes and leaned against Amy’s shoulder.
“So, now we’re orphans.” Regan whispered the words that were on everyone’s mind.
“What are we gonna do now?!” Maddi wailed. “We didn’t really have a plan, past escaping, and I guess we were all just gonna go home, but there is no home!”
“Listen to me, Madison Madison.” Regan put her hand on Maddi’s shoulder. “My mom and dad, Megan and Tyler Waters, are gone, too. But we have to keep going. Somewhere, there will be a place for us. We just have to find it.
“And the only way we’re going to find home, is by walking there.”
They had walked a long way, and now it was night. They had found another alley, and Natalie and Ellie, the ‘pack horses,’ were making beds.
The rest of the girls were discussing how Dr. Stark fit into all this. They were sitting in a circle, newspapers and posters spread in the middle of them.
“We found this first,” Lily held up a ‘Missing’ article from a newspaper.
She placed it next to the ‘Found’ posters.
“Last, we found . . . this.” Amy pushed the ‘We are Sad to Announce the Death of Ten Great People’ newspaper after the ‘Found’ posters.
“Maddi, do you, by any chance, still have that notebook?” Regan asked.
“Yeah, I do!” Maddi answered.
Maddi pushed the newspapers and posters aside, and laid the notebook down.
“I’m making a diagram,” Regan explained as she began writing. ” ‘Missing’ article in newspaper,” Regan said as she wrote.
“Dr. Stark? No,” she continued. “That’s because he isn’t mentioned in the article.” Regan told them.
When Regan was finished, Amy looked at the notebook. Only the ‘Missing’ newspaper add did not mention Dr. Stark.
Ellie and Natalie finished making the beds and sat down.
“Regan drew a diagram.” Amy showed them.
Suddenly, Amy asked, “Natalie, what do you know about your step-dad, Dr. Stark?”
“Um, not much,” Natalie replied, startled. “Just that he’s a scientist. I didn’t meet him before Mom and I moved into Stark Mansion this week.”
Ellie yawned. “Let’s go to bed; I’m tired. All this escaping is making me sleepy!” Ellie said.
Everyone nodded in agreement.
They wiggled under their blankets, keeping their shoes on and making sure no arms or legs stuck out. October nights were cold.
Early the next morning, Lily woke up thinking, Something’s wrong.
It took her a minute to notice what was wrong. During that time, she thought, I’m just superstitious.
But then she saw what was wrong.
Regan was gone.
Lily jumped out of her bed and shook Amy awake.
“Amy! Regan’s gone! Get up!”
Amy bolted upright. “Huh?” she asked.
“It’s Regan! She’s gone!” Lily repeated, pointing at Regan’s empty bed.
“Well, come on, then! Let’s find her!” Amy grabbed Lily’s hand and pulled her out of the alley.
“Wait! What about them?” Lily motioned at Ellie, Natalie, and Maddi, who were still sleeping. “What will happen when they wake up, and we aren’t here? They’ll probably have the same reaction as you and me. We need to stay together.”
Lily and Amy aroused their companions, and in less then ten minutes, ‘camp’ was packed up, and Lily was assigning ‘pack-horses’ for the day.
“Maddi and Natalie will carry the bedding today,” Lily said.
“But I carried bedding yesterday!” Natalie protested.
“I know, and tomorrow Maddi will carry bedding again, and in place of you will be Regan, assuming we find her,” Lily explained.
Just as they were leaving the alley, Regan came running up!
“Where were you?” Lily asked, running up to meet her.
“I was just out for a morning run,” Regan said. “I used to do that every day with my . . . parents,” she finished quietly.
Lily gathered Regan up in a hug. “I was scared that ‘they’ had captured you again!” Lily whispered into Regan’s ear.
Regan made some sort of sound of protest that sounded like this: “Blah! Get me out of this hug!”
After walking three hours to the undecided location, Ellie slumped against a wall and sighed, “I’m so tired! I need a break.”
“No,” Regan said sharply. “We need to keep going.”
“Regan,” Lily said gently, putting her hand on Regan’s shoulder. “We have been walking for three hours straight. Give her a break, she’s only ten.”
“OK,” Regan muttered.
“Let’s rest here for bit,” Lily announced.
Everyone sat down and started talking.
Little did they know they were being spied on.
“No where to hide now, girlies,” the spy said under his breath.
His walkie–talkie beeped quietly. “Do you see them?” a voice crackled over the radio.
“Yeah, boss,” the spy said.
“Good work, Jasper. You may begin the plan.”
“They’re right in front of me,” Jasper informed his boss. “Starting the plan now.”
He slid silently out of his hiding place.
Meanwhile, the girls were still talking. “Where are we going to go?” Maddi asked.
“That’s a very good question, Maddi,” Amy said. “Any ideas?”
“How about a babysitter?” Ellie suggested. When she saw everybody staring at her like she was crazy, she did her best to explain. “Well, like an au-pair.”
“What’s that?” Amy asked.
“Um, I don’t know. Someone similar to a babysitter, I guess. Maybe, just maybe, we could live with one.”
“We’ll keep that in mind,” Lily promised.
Just then, Regan saw someone in the shadows. It was Jasper, the spy. When she saw the words ‘Stark Laboratory’ on his jacket, she screamed. “Run! Run!”
“I’m coming to get you!”Jasper yelled, running toward them.
The girls all jumped up and ran, not bothering to grab their bedding.
But Ellie just couldn’t keep up. She was so tired; she couldn’t run very fast at all.
And Jasper was getting closer by the second to re-capturing her.
Regan couldn’t let that happen. She turned around and ran faster than she had ever run before.
Regan pushed off the ground and tackled Jasper.
She landed on him. Hard.
Jasper fought her, trying to take her prisoner again, but she wiggled out of his grasp.
Regan got up and ran, but Jasper stuck his foot out, tripping her.
She fell to the ground with a loud crack! Regan let out a high-pitched cry.
Regan tried to get up, only to fall down again.
Right when Jasper was about to pounce on Regan, Amy came up and punched him in the face!
Amy helped Regan up and they got away as fast as they could.
They rejoined their friends, thinking they were safe. But then they heard foot steps!
They ducked into a dark alley, and Amy helped Regan lie down.
“What’s wrong?” Amy asked as soon as Regan was settled. Everyone had heard that crack.
“It–it’s my ankle,” Regan managed.
Amy reached down and touched it gently. Regan grimaced, and bit her lip to keep from crying again.
“I–I think it’s broken,” Regan said in a barely audible voice. “You have to leave me.”
“No,” Amy said. “I’m not leaving you.”
“You have to leave me!” Regan insisted, pushing herself up so she could look Amy in the eye.
“Regan, we’re not leaving without you. No man, er, woman, left behind.”
Jasper’s footsteps had run past the alley. Amy helped Regan up and they were on their way.
After days of searching newspapers for the perfect au-pair/babysitter/person to live with, they had arrived at her doorstep.
Lily knock three times on the door. Knock, knock, knock!
A young woman, about seventeen, answered the door. “Hello?” she said.
“Hi!” Natalie said. Then she got right to the point. “Would you be willing to basically adopt six girls of ages varying from ten to twelve?”
The young woman laughed. “Certainly. Come on in and take a shower. You look like you could definitely use one.”
Once the girls had all showered, and had a fresh change of clothes on, they gathered in the living room, where the young woman was waiting.
“I see I had clothes that fit you,” she said.
“Yes, thank you, they fit perfectly,” Lily replied.
“Take a seat — wherever you can.” The young woman motioned them over. Turns out, five of the girls had to sit on the floor because there were only two seats.
“Alright,” the woman began. “I’m Nellie Rodriguez. Who are all of you?”
“I’m Lily Brooks,” Lily told Nellie.
After everyone had said who there were, Nellie pulled out her phone. “It can’t be!” she exclaimed. “The news has an article about where each of you are right now! Regan is at a swimming competition in Washington, Ellie is at a horse race, Maddi is at –”
Amy interrupted her. “It’s a long story . . .” She told Nellie about getting captured, escaping, finding out that they had been cloned, and finally, showing up in her living room on 568 South Boulevard, Star City, California.
Nellie just stared. Finally she said, “I’ve heard that the real Regan Waters can do fifty push-ups in a minute. Drop and give me fifty!”
She opened a timer app and set it to a minute.
Regan began doing just that, but you could tell she was in pain. “Regan, stop. You’re going to hurt yourself,” Lily said.
“No! I need to keep going!” Regan insisted halfheartedly.
Finally Nellie stopped Regan, and Amy explained that she had a broken ankle.
Next, Nellie said, “Natalie, do your catwalk wink!”
Natalie stood up and winked the way she did at the end of a runway, then spun on her heel.
It continued in this manner down the line of girls; Nellie asking them to do something, and them doing it perfectly. Nellie sighed happily. “I believe you. And I’ll foster you, too.”
The girls all jumped up and cheered. Amy pumped her fist in the air.
Nellie opened ‘Snap-chat’ and took a picture.
‘Celebrating with my new foster kids!!’
She sent it to her foster buddy, Alina. They were best friends, and had decided together to foster.
The girls rushed over and hugged Nellie.
“Thank you, thank you!”
The girls waited restlessly for Nellie and Regan to get home from the doctor. After the celebration had quieted down, Nellie had immediately taken Regan to the emergency room to do something about her broken foot.
Finally, the door opened and Nellie came in, followed by Regan.
When Ellie and Maddi saw Regan’s crutches and cast, they jumped off the couch. Maddi ran to get some pillows.
They helped Regan lie down on the couch, and Maddi tucked a pillow under Regan’s injured foot.
“I can take care of myself,” Regan snapped. “No need to help me do everything.”
“While you’re hurt, you need to get used to the idea of being a patient!” Ellie told her, running off to the kitchen to get some water.
She came back with a red plastic cup, and held it to Regan’s lips.
Regan swatted it away. “I’m pretty sure I can drink a little bit of water by myself!” she exclaimed.
Quickly, Nellie suggested, “Why don’t we watch a movie?”
She placed her laptop on a little table, and pulled it up next to the sofa.
“Let’s watch Horseland!” Ellie said.
Nellie shook her head. “Regan will pick.”
“Let’s watch the McKenna movie,” Regan said.
“Okay.” Nellie clicked on it.
Natalie, Maddi and Ellie gathered around as the movie started.
An hour and a half later, when the movie finished, Regan was asleep on the couch; out cold.
Nellie placed a blanket over her, and everyone went to bed.
After a few days, they had gotten the school-day routine down.
Interrupt Nellie from doing last-minute things before leaving for college to say goodbye.
Go out and wait for the bus.
It was an early December morning, and the girls were all waiting for the bus to arrive.
Amy had been quiet all morning, but finally, she said something. “Do you ever wonder what it would be like if this never even happened?”
At first, there was silence. But then Regan said quietly, “I’ve had dreams. About my mom and dad.”
Lily nodded. “I miss my parents, too.”
“I bet we’ll always miss them,” Maddi added. “But if this never happened, I’d never have met you guys! You’re all my best friends. In fact, you’re more than that. You’re like sisters.”
After school, the girls gathered in their bedroom. Nellie wasn’t back from Pizza Hut where she worked, so they were on their own for a bit.
“What should we get Nellie for Christmas?” Amy asked. “It’s just two weeks away!” She held a pencil poised over a piece of paper, ready to write down any suggestions.
“Why do we need to get Nellie a present, anyway?” Natalie inquired.
“Because!” Lily burst out. “Where would we be if she hadn’t taken us in? We’d be dead, or back in Dr. Stark’s little prison.”
“Oh! Oh! I have an idea!” Ellie said, waving her hand in the air. “Something that shows all of our talents.”
“Great!” Amy said, writing it down. “Something to show our talents.”
“Come on! Let’s get started.”
Lily gently placed the lid on Nellie’s present that they had spent all afternoon working on. “It’s perfect.”
Regan crept into their bedroom, where Lily was still asleep. “Wake up, Lil,” Regan whispered.
When Lily kept on sleeping, Regan shook her. “It’s Christmas! Get up!”
Lily groaned and pulled the blanket up over her face.
“Lil-y!” Regan said, louder.
Finally, Lily rolled over to face Regan. “This is my third Christmas without my parents,” she said softly.
Lily sat up. “But what am I talking about? I can’t go back.”
“Just let me do something with this mob, okay?” She held up her hair.
“‘Kay” Then Regan left.
Lily got out of bed, quickly pulled her hair back, and followed Regan downstairs.
Lily got to the living room where everyone — except Amy and Nellie — were waiting in their pajamas.
“Where’s Amy?” Lily asked.
“She went to get –” Maddi’s voice dropped to a whisper “– Nellie’s present.”
“Which present do you think is yours?” Ellie asked.
“I think that one’s mine.” She pointed to a black bag with white and pink leaves and flowers on it.
“Hmm, maybe this one?” Lily walked over to the biggest gift. “It could be a karaoke machine!”
Suddenly, Amy came running into the room. “I got it!” she said. Then they heard footsteps in the kitchen. “Quick — hide it!”
Natalie grabbed Nellie’s present and stashed it behind a chair.
Just then, Nellie walked into the room, holding a cup of coffee. “Morning , kiddos,” she yawned. “Merry Christmas.”
“Merry Christmas!” the girls sang.
She sat down on the couch. “Mornings,” she grumbled. “Why?”
She drained her cup of coffee and stood up. “Why don’t those who are able sit on the ground, and I’ll start passing around presents?”
She placed a shopping bag on Natalie’s lap.
“Wow!” Natalie exclaimed. “New boots!”
“Here, Regan.” Nellie put a bag down on the couch.
Regan pulled it’s contents out. “A soccer ball and a basket ball. Thanks!”
Then Nellie gave Amy a small, blue box.
Amy opened it up, and pulled out some earrings. “I love them! I’ve been eying them for quite a bit now.”
Maddi got a purse and a charm necklace,
and Ellie got a mermaid figurine and a pillow made out of a saddle-blanket.
Nellie gave Lily a little black box.
“Open it,” she encouraged.
So Lily did. “It’s a locket.”
Nellie nodded. “Now see what’s inside,” she said with a gentle smile.
Lily opened it up and gasped. Inside were the smiling faces of her parents. Her eyes shone with un-shed tears.
“Oh. We’ve got something for you, Nellie,” Amy announced, standing up to get it.
Once Nellie was seated on the floor, Amy gave her the box.
Nellie pulled each item out of the box. “We made a gift that showed all of our talents,” Amy told her.
Maddi leaned over and pointed to the thing she’d made. “It’s a coupon for one play written by me.”
Lily picked up what she and Amy had made together. “It’s a CD of Christmas carols. I sang them. Amy recorded me, and then she did a special feature by her at the end.”
Regan gave her a water bottle by a brand called ‘Running Queen,’ and Natalie made a purse.
“I made you a clay unicorn!” Ellie giggled. “I’m an animal lover, and a bit of an artist, too.”
Nellie’s phone started beeping. ” ‘Scuse me.”
“Hello? Yes, this is Nellie Rodriguez. What?! . . . oh, thank you, thank you!!!”
Nellie turned back to the girls, tears pricking the corners of her eyes.
“What is it?!” they all asked in unison.
“They said I could adopt you! They really did!” The tears were falling freely now.
The girls surrounded Nellie in an enormous hug.
And the laughing and crying and hugging and joy on that day would never be forgotten.
And it was official: this was the best Christmas ever.