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Written by Laura McNealAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Laura McNeal and Tom McNealAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Tom McNeal

· Knopf Books for Young Readers
· eBook · December 18, 2007 · $9.99 · 978-0-307-43413-5 (0-307-43413-3)

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Baked in a Pie

It wasn't a normal Thursday, but all day long it had seemed like one, so when the final bell rang, Mick Nichols did what he normally did. He walked from Jemison High to Melville Junior High by way of the athletic fields, fast-walking at first, but then, as he neared the muddy grass where the girls' field hockey team was collecting for spring practice, he settled into something closer to a purposeful stroll.

He hoped he wasn't too early, and he wasn't. Lisa Doyle was there--he caught a flash of her coppery red hair through the shifting shoulders and sticks, and suddenly everywhere and all at once a strange prickling sensation began spreading across his skin. She bent down to pick up her stick, and when she happened to flick a glance in his general direction, Mick's face went wooden. He kept his eyes directly forward and walked stiffly on without another look her way. Beneath his old bomber jacket, beneath his khaki T-shirt, a cool bead of sweat coursed down his rib cage. Dink, he thought as he reached the chain-link fence that marked the boundary of the high school. Dink dink dink.

Melville Junior High was located just across the street to the east of Jemison High, so by this time of day Jemison's shadow already reached across Melville's front lawn. Mick cut through Melville's parking lot and wandered down to the art room, where his stepmother, Nora Mercer-Nichols, was cleaning up after a day of what she liked jokingly to call "teaching art to the artless." She was stuffing dirty wool into black Hefty bags. When she saw Mick she pushed her sandy blond hair up with the back of her hand and said, "Hello, Maestro!" Then, "Hi, Mick."

Nora Mercer-Nichols was in her early thirties, but she seemed younger. She'd married Mick's father four years before. The first time Mick had met her, she and his father had come in quietly behind him when he was playing the piano in the living room. He'd thought he was alone, and when he finally got through one of Bach's Inventions without a flub, he leaned back on the piano bench and exultantly shot a fist into the air, which drew sudden laughter from Nora and his father. Mick had swung around, surprised and embarrassed. When his father introduced her, he said, "Nora, this is my son, Mick," and she'd smiled and said, "Well, I think I'm going to have to call him Maestro," which she still did. Mick had heard a lot of Bad Stepmother stories, but he liked Nora. He never thought of her as his mother or even his stepmother. She was just Nora, and almost any room was more interesting if she were in it.

Today, standing just inside her classroom door, next to a cabinet lined with bird's nests in clear Plexiglas boxes, Mick read for probably the hundredth time the English and Latin labels he'd helped Nora make one night last fall: black-capped chickadee (Parus atricapillus). house sparrow (Passer domesticus). chipping sparrow (Spizella passerina). A few of the nests held faintly tinted eggs, some freckled, some not. Nora had been asked about the eggs so often that she'd made a small sign that said don't worry, you bird lovers you, I only collect abandoned nests.

Mick found himself staring at some faintly freckled eggs, which made him think of Nora's shoulders in summer, a thought he tried to shake off.

"So," Nora said. "Gimme the daily Doyle report."

Mick shrugged. "Brief visual contact."

"Really? Well, did you smile back?"

"Not exactly."

They both fell silent. About three weeks ago, while driving home with Nora, Mick had told her in a matter-of-fact voice about "this kind of weird effect" that the sight of Lisa Doyle had on him. A laugh had burst from Nora. " 'The heart is the tyrant who spares no one,' " she recited.

"Who said that?"

Nora grinned and nodded toward a small, red ceramic devil that she'd recently set on her dashboard. "Probably little Beezlebub," she said. "Either that or some dead white guy."

Mick didn't know why she called the figurine Beezlebub. All he knew was, he didn't like the little guy. At first it just seemed like a toddler in a devil sleeper, but it always seemed to be peering at you with its black, curious eyes.

"Where'd you get that thing anyway?" he said.

"School," Nora said. "On desktop treasure trading day."

Mick stared at it for a second or two. "It's kind of grimy."

Nora chuckled. "The word I'd use is 'puckish.' " Then, after a block or two had passed, "Weren't we on the subject of one Lisa Doyle? What do you and Lisa talk about?"

"That's kind of the problem," Mick said, and felt his face color slightly. "I haven't actually ever talked to Lisa Doyle."

Nora shot him a look of surprise and then became serious. "Okay, Maestro. Here's the deal. You've been smitten. It may be a foolish infatuation or it may be the real thing. What you have to do is get to know her, and vice versa, which means something more extreme than hockey field walk-bys. You need proximity. If she's on the debate team, join the debate team. If she plays tennis, buy yourself a racket." They were at a stoplight and Nora had fixed Mick with her winsome smile. "If she plays pinochle, take up pinochle."

"I hear she's Mormon," Mick said.

Nora had laughed. "Then say your prayers, and make sure they're good ones," she had said.

The wool they were bagging this afternoon was surprisingly dirty, snagged with twigs and seeds and even clusters of what looked to Mick like sheep dung. He broke a silence by saying, "This stuff's pretty disgusting. What's it for anyway?"

"A new enrichment class." Nora pointed at the near bulletin board, where in large letters it said wool: from sheep to sweater. She laughed again. "You'll be happy to know it's open to students of both genders. The early colonists taught all their children to spin, including boys."

Mick said, "So this class would be a serious opportunity for any guy who might want to be a colonist when he grows up." He hoped this would be good for a chuckle from Nora, and it was. Then he said, "Well, maybe Dad or me'll get a sweater out of it." This was a joke. Although Nora had been working on something that was supposed to be a sweater, she wouldn't say who it was for or what it was supposed to look like, and more often than not she seemed to be unraveling it to correct a mistake.

"Ha," said Nora. "That'll depend on who does the supper dishes."

From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpted from Zipped by Laura and Tom McNeal Copyright © 2003 by Laura and Tom McNeal. Excerpted by permission of Knopf Books for Young Readers, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.