Chapter One


“Good morning class!”

Miranda Hutton sighed. Mr. Dodd was using his most cheerful voice, which meant another boring science lecture. The teacher was tall and thin, and sported a mop of dark, spiky hair and a small goatee. Most of the students agreed he reminded them of Abraham Lincoln, only without the stovepipe hat. Miranda thought he looked a lot like Snidely Whiplash in those old cartoons about that Canadian mountie, Dudley Do-Right. Whatever. He was certainly some strange, ancient character, one way or the other.

“As you know, we’ve been exploring chemical reactions for the past three weeks. Today we are going to the lab for one of our most interesting experiments … gunpowder!”

Miranda slowly turned her head toward Carmen Rojas. They looked at each other, smiles playing at the corners of their mouths. Miranda and Carmen both hated science class because it was sooo boring. The only time it wasn’t boring was when Mr. Dodd had them do experiments in the chemistry lab. Somehow, they usually found a way to “liven up” the experiment. With something like gunpowder, finding a way to make things go wrong should be very easy.

The phone in Miranda’s hand vibrated. The text message read “Ideas?” She texted back: “Not! Later.” Then both girls looked back up at their science teacher with serious expressions on their faces.

No doubt Mr. Dodd was a very smart man, but he rarely caught on to what they had done to change the experiment from fundamental to fun. He was often astonished and embarrassed by the results. Sometimes, putrid smells came out of intended sweet ones. Sometimes, dead frogs hopped on the dissecting table as though alive and wanting to escape. Once, when he was showing how rubber did not conduct electricity, he was literally “shocked” to find out that this piece of rubber somehow did!

At first glance, most people might not think Miranda and Carmen had anything in common. Well, other than being almost fourteen-year old girls and Best Forever Friends.

Miranda had golden skin tones and a strawberry blonde mop, which always seemed to be tangled no matter how much her mother brushed it. Carmen had milk chocolate skin and shiny black hair, which hung down straight and neat. Miranda looked all skin and bones, while Carmen was a little plump. Miranda was known for creating mischief, sometimes even being a rebel. On the surface, Carmen also seemed like a sweet at school, being unfailingly polite to all of the teachers and never missing an assignment. Everyone said she was like a treat from an assorted box, with a cherry inside of that chocolate covering.

However, beneath that sweet exterior was a brown nut, a kernel of craziness that got Carmen into nearly as much mischief at school as Miranda. Perhaps because of her reputation—or maybe because she knew how to be careful—Carmen never seemed to get caught. Unfortunately, Miranda often did.

The first time Mr. Dodd caught her was when they were working on a biology project. They were just about to dissect a frog when it started hopping up and down on the table. Only when he discovered an almost invisible filament somehow attached to the frog and draped over the upright sink faucet at the end of the demonstration table did he figure out what had happened. He quickly traced the other end of the filament to Miranda’s adjoining table.

“Humm.” Mr. Dodd stroked his pointy chin, standing straight above her and looking down his long nose at the sick grin on her face. “Your father has something to do with aerospace, doesn’t he? And I’ll bet this is some sort of self-adhering micro-filament used in avionics. Am I right?”

Her loud gulp and widened eyes gave her away. In spite of looking like Abe Lincoln, she decided he must be more like Sherlock Holmes. As she sat in the vice-principal’s office waiting to be sentenced for her crime, Miranda had vowed to be more clever the next time. All through Saturday School, Miranda had thought about how to cover her tracks better in the future.

Part of that plan was using Carmen to actually do the dirty deed. Miranda made sure she was sitting far from the table where Mr. Dodd was setting up the experiment of electricity, using some conductive and some non-conductive materials for demonstration purposes. While he was plugging a machine to an electrical outlet, Carmen, who had been watching in pretended fascination from the nearest table, squirted a tiny bit of salt water onto the “safe” side of the piece of rubber, enabling just enough electricity to pass through to give Mr. Dodd a nice jolt when he showed them how safe it was.

On the first experiment with chemical reactions, the class had made “fizzy, scented bath bombs”, which were meant to be an easy-to-make bubble bath. The students mixed citric acid, cornstarch and baking soda in one bowl, and in another they mixed a fragrance and food coloring with some vegetable oil they liked to smell, such as coconut oil, apricot kernel or sweet almond oil. The two were then mixed slowly together and formed into little balls. The balls were left to harden overnight, ready to be plopped into a bathtub when finished.

Miranda’s “oil” of choice was sulfur. As a powder, sulfur has almost no odor, but when mixed with the citric acid, it broke down and eventually smelled like rotten eggs. As they left the lab, Miranda switched her “bath bombs” with those of Debbie Markley. Both Miranda and Carmen disliked Debbie because she was always acting like a teacher’s pet, and snitched on anything and everyone in order to be popular with the teachers. The next day the lab had to be aired out before anyone could use it.

Unfortunately for Miranda, Debbie reminded Mr. Dodd that she had specifically asked him if vanilla extract would work as her oil, and that he had helped her add it to her concoction. Mr. Dodd remembered Debbie’s little sucking up. He soon discovered whose desk had traces of powdered sulfur on it, and who had really created the stink bomb. On that occasion, Miranda had actually been suspended for three days!

Needless to say, her parents had been furious. For some strange reason, however, when Mr. Hutton found out how creative his daughter had been in science class—a subject he was well aware she hated—he had gone easy on her home punishment. She was still wondering about that when she was jerked out of her thoughts by Mr. Dodd’s suddenly stern voice.


Miranda’s head shot up. She pasted an innocent smile on her face as he glared at her. She felt the eyes of all of the other students on her.

“Yes, Mr. Dodd?” she said sweetly.

“You will not be, um, participating in today’s experiment,” he told her firmly. “Janie McDonald will be Carmen’s lab partner for today. You will merely be, um, observing. From the back of the room, I might add.”

Miranda slumped back in her seat, crushed. What fun would that be?

“Yes, Mr. Dodd,” she muttered. She realized her clever antics had finally caught up to her. As she moved her chair to the back of the room, she heard a few titters from other students, but she refused to look at them. She was especially certain she recognized the rather loud sniggering of Debbie Markley.

Mr. Dodd arranged several containers and beakers on the demonstration table. “Now, class,” he said, “gunpowder is of great historical importance in chemistry. You probably know it best because it can explode, but its principal use is as a propellant because of the gasses it produces. That means it doesn’t, um, necessarily do damage by itself, but rather pushes something such as a bullet or a rocket.”

“When was it invented, Mr. Dodd?” asked Debbie in her best little suck-up voice.

“Excellent question, Debbie,” said Mr. Dodd.

Oh, naturally, thought Miranda. Always such “excellent” questions because they’re exactly what he wants to hear.

“We believe that Chinese alchemists first began experimenting with the basic ingredients of gunpowder in the First Century AD, primarily for medicinal purposes. Gunpowder itself wasn’t actually developed until perhaps the Ninth Century. The Chinese mixed elemental sulfur—” He paused, with a very obvious glare towards Miranda. There were more laughs and quiet comments from the other students. Miranda tried to sink down farther in her chair. Mr. Dodd cleared his throat. “As I say, they mixed sulfur with charcoal and potassium nitrate, better known as saltpeter. Charcoal is the fuel, saltpeter or niter is the oxidizer, and sulfur allows for a stable reaction. In many pyrotechnic applications, sugar is used instead of charcoal as the fuel.”

“What’s pyrotechnics?” asked Timmy Flint.

“Fireworks,” Mr. Dodd answered simply.

There were a number of oohs and aahs. Everyone in the room loved fireworks. Mr. Dodd picked up a heavy plastic spoon and carefully mixed the ingredients in a large stone bowl.

“When the ingredients were carefully ground together, the end result was a powder they called serpentine,” Mr. Dodd said as he concentrated on his work.

“Why did they call it serpentine?” Timmy asked again.

Mr. Dodd looked up from his grinding and blinked several times.

“I don’t really know,” he admitted. He cocked his head to the side and moved it as though scratching his ear on his shoulder, which the students always found terribly amusing because he looked like Abe Lincoln imitating Big Bird. He thought for a moment. “Well, the Chinese had a lot of mythology involving dragons, which were more like huge, flying serpents in their culture. Perhaps they thought the fiery powder was what gave the dragon its fiery breath.” He shrugged. “I’m just speculating, of course.”

He went back to mixing the ingredients as he continued talking.

“For hundreds of years the ingredients were mixed dry, which made gunpowder very erratic and dangerous.” He reached for a beaker of water and poured some in. “Not until chemists learned to add water did it really become more reliable, and therefore more useful. We think that was, um, in the twelve hundreds.”

“How does gunpowder work, Mr. Dodd?” Debbie said in her simpering voice, the one that always made Miranda feel sick to her stomach.

“What basically burns is the carbon from the charcoal,” he answered eagerly, once again looking up from his mixing. “As you should remember from previous lessons, carbon in a fire needs oxygen to burn. Without an oxidizer the reaction would be slow, like a wood fire, because a fire must draw oxygen from the air. The saltpeter provides extra oxygen. The burning carbon mixes with the increased oxygen to form carbon dioxide and great energy. The potassium nitrate, sulfur, and carbon react together to form nitrogen and carbon dioxide gases and potassium sulfide. These expanding gases, nitrogen and carbon dioxide, provide the propelling action.”

“So how did we get fireworks from gunpowder?” Timmy wondered.

“Ah, another excellent question. Thank you, Timmy,” Mr. Dodd said.

In this case, Miranda thought it actually was a pretty good question. She had not thought of Timmy as being particularly bright or inquisitive before.

Mr. Dodd pointed dramatically at a wooden tube that was on the floor behind him, supported by a tripod. Until now, none of the students had noticed it.

“At some time in their history, the Chinese began experimenting with tubes filled with gunpowder. Originally, fireworks had religious purposes, but they were adapted for military use during the Middle Ages in the form of ‘flaming arrows’. At first, the Chinese attached bamboo tubes to arrows and launched them with bows. Soon they discovered that these gunpowder tubes could launch themselves just by the power produced from the escaping gas. Therefore, fireworks are the oldest form of rockets, and the most simplistic.”

He beamed proudly down at the wooden tube partially hidden by the demonstration table. All of the students craned their necks to see it better.

“I was going to save this as a little surprise for you. As you can see, I tried to recreate the ‘fire tube’ as authentically as I could. The tube is actually made from bamboo, as is the tripod. Although the gunpowder inside is quite modern, and therefore much more stable than the Chinese would have had in that era, the pyrotechnics are essentially using what we believe are the same type of colors and sparklers they might have had.”

“Wow!” yelled Brent Millhouse. “Are you going to shoot off your fireworks for us, Mr. Dodd?”

Miranda twisted her mouth to the side. Brent was the type of boy her father called a “jock”. She thought he was just a jerk.

“Actually, I do intend to,” Mr. Dodd said. “You are all invited to attend a small ceremony this Friday night in the middle of the football field, at which time I intend to set off this and a few other fireworks made in the ancient tradition.”

“Wow!” Brent shouted again. “Skyrockets here at school! That’s wicked!”

“Not exactly.” Mr. Dodd lowered his hand to calm him down. “These displays are actually more like Roman candles, sort of a big set of sparklers that will come out the top of the tube. It won’t shoot up very far, partly for the sake of safety.” At that news, many of the students sank in their seats. He sighed as if he regretted he could not present his great demonstration at that moment. “For now, however, I only want to light a tiny bit of this mixture in order to show you the explosive power of gunpowder.”

Miranda was not normally interested in the sciences, but she was impressed by this lesson. The chemical process that went into making something as exciting as gunpowder, as well as some of history, had actually been interesting. Well, a little bit.

Mr. Dodd stood in front of the “fire tube”, getting it ready for the next part of the experiment. While she waited, Miranda thought about how funny it would be if a spark of electricity set the tube on fire. From what he’d said, she knew it would not take much to ignite the volatile mixture in that bamboo tube, catching the chemicals on fire and sending the pyrotechnic materials firing off into the air. That would be SOOO funny!

There was an electrical connection not more than two feet from that tube. If, somehow, it were to emit a random spark, it could not possibly miss that pile of explosive elements, shooting off the fireworks right behind her unsuspecting teacher. Miranda shook her head, trying to keep from laughing out loud. She could just imagine the powerful electrical forces hiding behind that wall, building up a rogue charge ready to leap outwards to find some inviting landing place to do the worst possible damage, like those that set kitchens or other rooms on fire in unsuspecting houses. She could almost feel the energy of the electricity, forcing its way into that innocent looking plug, ready to spring at her command. The thought grew stronger. The tension she felt kept building until Miranda gave an involuntary jerk of her head. At that exact moment, a spark of electricity actually did shoot out from the electrical plug and land right on the top of the homemade fireworks!

With her eyes as big as when she looked into her mother’s makeup mirror, Miranda saw a tiny plume of smoke rise from the tube. As if watching a very slow tennis match, Miranda looked back and forth between the wisp of smoke and her teacher, who was now pouring a tiny amount of his concoction into a heavy iron frying pan. As the smoke became heavier, some of the other students saw it as well, but Mr. Dodd was too intent on his efforts to notice.

For a moment, Miranda was tempted to shout out a warning. Then, remembering how she had been punished twice for playing tricks on him, she thought she had better keep quiet so that she would not be suspected of being a part of this developing disaster. Let one of the other students warn him. But, as the igniting powder smoldered for nearly a minute, no one else said a word. Again the tension built in her body, and Miranda was certain the sparklers were about to come shooting out of that tube at any second.

And suddenly they did. With a little “Whoomp!” the pyrotechnic display began, spraying brightly colored sparks and hissing embers right at the back of Mr. Dodd. For several seconds he did not react, perhaps only noticing when the sparklers began singeing his trouser bottoms. With a jerk he turned to see what was happening.

“YEOW!” he screamed. “Help! I’m on fire!”

Then the pandemonium broke out. Some of the students screamed, and others leaped to their feet, knocking over their chairs. Timmy Flint, more alert than Miranda would have imagined, dashed to the wall for the fire extinguisher. Several of the students ran out of the lab, yelling “FIRE!” at the top of their lungs. As the smoke hit the sensors, the fire alarm started up loudly and warning lights flashed on and off brightly.

Timmy ran behind the demonstration table and started spraying the back of Mr. Dodd’s trousers with the fire retardant.

“Not me!” yelled Mr. Dodd. He grabbed the extinguisher away from Timmy, who gave him an angry look at not being appreciated for his quick actions. Mr. Dodd doused the Roman candle, which was still spraying out its brightly colored contents into the air and over the table.

After fifteen minutes, the fireworks had been put out and the room cleared of smoke enough to turn off the alarm. All of the students in the school, including everyone who had been in the lab, were out on the blacktop in their fire drill positions. Almost everyone was talking loudly, including the teachers, each giving a different version of what had gone on. It seemed that the only two people who were quiet were Miranda and Carmen, who were hanging on to each other for support.

Soon the alarm was turned off and the teachers began to herd their classes back to their rooms. As Miranda turned to follow, Mr. Dodd came marching out of the science building. His long limbs jerked wildly, his tangled hair stood up straighter than usual, and his normally pale face was a bright red. Trying to keep up with him was Ms. Montoya, one of the vice principals.

“Ms. Montoya is going to conduct the rest of you back to class,” Mr. Dodd said, in a voice that was about two octaves higher than normal. “You!” he hissed, pointing at Miranda with a long, bony finger. “You will come with me to Mr. Denton’s office!”

“What!” Miranda bleated. “Why?”

“I think you know why, young lady!” Mr. Dodd shouted.

Miranda gawked at the enraged man, spreading her hands in a show of innocence. “But you know there’s no way I could have done anything to your fireworks! I was sitting at the back of the room!”

“We’ll see about that when we get down to the principal’s office!” Mr. Dodd glared at her with obvious satisfaction. He reached to grab her arm, but then thought better of it. “Now march, young lady.”

As they turned in the opposite direction from the rest of the class, Miranda looked back at her friend as though to gain some support.

Although her body did not betray her, Miranda could clearly see Carmen mouth the words: “How did you do it?”

There were no words for Miranda to say. She flung her arms far apart, as if to match her already wide eyes and mouth, in a gesture that clearly said: “I didn’t! I’m innocent!”

Then, slowly, she turned to follow her science teacher.

Chapter Two


Miranda was limp with relief. For such a serious matter—especially one that involved science—Mr. Hutton had decided to take the day off and accompany Miranda to the meeting with the principal, Mr. Denton, and Mr. Dodd. It was rare that her father would take valuable time off of work. Although she could barely mumble her thanks, she knew he would be on her side.

The small office seemed very stuffy with the four of them sitting around the tiny conference table. First Mr. Dodd described the incident in detail, with many wild gestures and loud, angry words. Then Miranda repeated her brief protest of innocence.

“So,” Mr. Hutton said, “you actually have no evidence whatsoever Miranda had anything to do with the incident, is that correct?”

“The electrical connection was checked the next day,” Mr. Dodd said with a sniff. “I also checked it myself. There was nothing wrong with it that could have possibly caused a short circuit, a spark, or even a strong surge.” He glared at Miranda. “There must have been something around the table, some sort of sparker that ignited the powder.”

Wisely, Miranda decided to keep silent about what she had been thinking just before the electrical socket sparked. Just as important, she didn’t mention what she believed she had seen. She had seen enough episodes of “Law and Order” to know that information could only be used against her.

Mr. Hutton leaned back in his chair and blew a long, slow breath of air from his cheeks.

“Mr. Dodd, with all due respect to your expertise in the various fields of science, I’ve also been around the industry for quite a while. If the wiring and the socket were indeed sound, then there is nothing in my knowledge of electricity that could be altered to cause such a phenomenon. Further, I personally would have no idea of how to set up some sort of sparker so that it would make a spark jump from somewhere—and especially hide it in a place that would not have caught your attention—and land precisely on the top of that tube.”

Mr. Hutton paused and raised his eyebrows, and everyone leaned forward even more in their seats to catch what he intended to say next. His words were very measured.

“However, and which is much more to the point, from everything you have said it would have been impossible for Miranda or any other student to know what you had intended for your demonstration. There could, therefore, have been no reason or opportunity to have planned such an incredibly complex and clever device that could have ignited the highly flammable fireworks that you … well, shall we say, took it upon yourself to take into that laboratory without adequate safeguards.”

At those words, Mr. Dodd bristled and Mr. Denton sagged back in his seat. Both of them knew that this was an issue that would have to be resolved between them at another time, and one that had already caused Mr. Dodd a great deal of embarrassment and anger.

“Isn’t that correct?” Mr. Hutton demanded of the teacher.

Mr. Dodd was so furious that his hair was truly standing on end, and his entire body was trembling. It was all he could do to speak in a semi-civil voice.

“Yes,” he spat out. “That is correct. As far as I know.”

“Yes,” Mr. Hutton agreed mildly. “As far as we all know. So, given that those are the facts as we must all accept them, I don’t see how you could possibly punish Miranda for what happened. Let’s just agree that it was a very unfortunate accident, and that we should all be very cautious in the future when using hazardous materials.”

With that, Mr. Hutton sat back in his seat with what Miranda thought was a very self-satisfied smile. Both of the educators also settled down farther in their seats, although with attitudes that were far from satisfied.

Mr. Dodd made a sound somewhere between choking and a steam engine ready to blow its top. Mr. Denton made an attempt to defend his teacher’s accusation.

“You will admit, however, that Miranda does have a—shall we say, a track record for creating this sort of … incidents at school. Especially in Mr. Dodd’s classroom.”

Miranda noticed that the corners of her father’s mouth had turned down. That was the sign he was irritated. But his lips had not flattened into a straight line that reminded her of the blade of a sharp knife, so he was not really angry. Yet. Still, Mr. Hutton was also unhappy that he was forced to give a defensive answer.

“As you know, we’re very aware of that,” he said carefully.

He looked at her directly, but his eyes were not steely and the mouth was still soft. Inwardly, Miranda sighed in relief.

“However, Miranda promised me faithfully that she would not pull any more pranks in school—especially not in Mr. Dodd’s class. She has become aware of how inappropriate those things are, and possibly dangerous.” He turned his gaze back to Mr. Denton. “Be that as it may, the fact remains it would be almost impossible to have affected those fireworks, as I stated, and in the worst case you have absolutely no evidence. You would agree with those two statements, would you not?”

Mr. Denton bristled, but kept his voice calm. “Yes, Mr. Hutton. I think that’s quite correct.”

The meeting ended shortly afterward. As they left the room, Miranda glanced back at her teacher. Mr. Dodd gave her a look that promised the matter was far from closed, and that he would be observing her carefully from that moment on. Miranda gulped, and took her father’s hand as she trailed him out of the room.

As they got into the car, Mr. Hutton sat for several seconds staring at the steering wheel, but not starting the ignition. Finally, he turned to face his daughter.

“You have kept your promise, haven’t you, my dear?”

“Cross my heart and hope to die,” she said sincerely, making her hands echo her words.

He looked at her closely, then nodded. “Alright, then.” He quirked his mouth. “You know, Mr. Dodd seems like a nice man to me, very sincere, and he just doesn’t want his class disrupted by silly and time-wasting pranks. You did agree about that, didn’t you?”

“Yes, Father,” she said meekly.

“Okay, then.” Mr. Hutton moved as though to start the car, but then slowly leaned back in his seat. He put both hands on his knees and blew air through his mouth slowly. Then he turned to her once again.

“Miranda ….” he began, but then stopped as though uncertain of how to proceed.

“Yes, Father?” she prompted him gently.

“Miranda, if you had done it, you’d tell me how, right? I mean, just so that I could get a better idea of … well, your scientific talents. If nothing else.”

Miranda looked at him dead in the eye.

“Believe me, Father, if I had done it, and I knew how I did, I’d tell you. That would be pretty amazing, wouldn’t it?”

Mr. Hutton nodded, then gave a slight grin. “Yes. Yes, it certainly would.”

He started the car, and they drove home in silence.

As she looked out the window of the car, seeing vehicles, houses, electrical poles, telephone lines, and many more symbols of the modern world, Miranda decided that there would be no more messing around with science for her. It was just too dangerous. From now on, she would leave the sciences to her father and stick to some of the things her mother did. Some of the safer things in life, like cooking.

Yes, definitely. Cooking was a very good thing.

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