Courage for Beginners


By Karen Harrington

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Twelve-year-old Mysti Murphy wishes she were a character in a book. If her life were fictional, she’d magically know how to deal with the fact that her best friend, Anibal Gomez, has abandoned her in favor of being a “hipster.” She’d be able to take care of everyone when her dad has to spend time in the hospital. And she’d certainly be able to change her family’s secret.

Seventh grade is not turning out the way Mysti had planned. With the help of a hot-air balloon, her new friend Rama Khan, and a bright orange coat, can she find the courage to change?


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Table of Contents

A Sneak Peek of Mayday

A Sneak Peek of Sure Signs of Crazy

Copyright Page

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chapter 1

I don't know much, but I do know people stop to look at unusual things. People slow down to look at car accidents. People pull out their cameras to snap pictures of orange sunsets. People lie on the grass in the dark if a news reporter says you might spot a meteor shower after midnight.

Maybe I look unusual right now. I probably do, but then, how could I stop to look at myself? That would be a trick.

I could be a painting in a museum. Girl Who Sits by a Window.

Museumgoers in colorful summer sandals would walk by my picture frame and say, Here is an odd red-haired girl sitting by her window. What is she waiting for? What is she looking at? What are we looking at?

In school I learned that if you are really quiet, people will think you are smart. This is another trick. I'm not smart. I just can't stop thinking.

I sit here motionless and still. Thinking. There is nothing else to do.

Most people aren't stuck inside their boring houses all the livelong day.

I am. That alone makes me unusual.

Dad is at work and Mama is in her room with the door closed and I have no idea about Laura. Mama just painted her walls Seafoam Green in preparation for another mural, and I wouldn't want to be in there if I was her, because of the fresh paint smell. But Laura is probably sidled up next to Mama on her bed, discussing whether the new mural should be a tree or teddy bears at a picnic or teddy bears at a picnic under a tree. As for me, I told Mama to quit changing the mural scene on my wall. I'm just fine with her version of the Mona Lisa, which we call the Faux-na Lisa. So far, she's left it there. She is starting on a forest in the hallway. For once in my life, I'm thankful none of my friends come over. Actually, that my one friend doesn't come over. There is only one. But I would die a thousand deaths of embarrassment if he saw all Mama's paintings. A portrait of SpongeBob is displayed over the hallway toilet. How do you explain that? Maybe it's just another unusual thing about my life.

The thing to do is move away from the window and stop looking at the street. It's getting hot, and I can already tell this August afternoon is going to be a heat-down, beat-down. It's my turn to water the backyard vegetables. They are probably screaming for me now. Help! Help us! If vegetables could scream, that is. But I have to wait for Woman Who Goes Somewhere to walk by our house. I need to take her picture and solve the mystery of where she is going before I get in trouble again.

Around the Fourth of July, I'd gotten the grounding of my life for taking pictures of Woman Who Goes Somewhere. Every flip-flop day of the summer, this woman has walked past my house, slow and steady and always in some weird outfit. Long baggy pants. Neon-yellow shirts. A parka! Let me tell you this: No one in Texas needs a parka. Nothing about this woman says she's a professional walker. And I know what they look like. There are two power walkers on our block who wear black-and-green warm-ups and put their hair up in tight ponytails. That is what they are supposed to do. Not Woman Who Goes Somewhere. Her hair is usually wild and disorganized. She doesn't carry a purse. She doesn't have anyone with her. She strolls to the beat of her own music. Where is she going? I have my theories. There are a lot of things going on in the big, wide world. Dangerous things. Adventurous things. Unusual things.

So I took some pictures of her with my camera. Big deal. I sat still as a statue at my windowsill one morning and waited for her to flip-flop past. Then, snap. I took two pictures. They didn't turn out too bad considering there is a screen covering my window. Unlike the Jenningses next door, we don't have giant trees in our front yard. Just tomato vines and cantaloupes growing every which way because Mama says they need the benefit of the full sun. But I wanted a clearer picture. So I figured out how to unscrew the screen so that I'd have a clear view. If my parents found out, which they did, they would have a cow, which they did.

It took Mama two minutes to tell Dad I was a "voyeur" (which means "one who sees" in French, and I don't know what's really wrong with being a person who sees). I didn't say much during their inquisition. I sat at the dinner table while Mama moved her arms through the air and explained my crime. Dad stared at me. I stared at the blue-and-white place mats. They are so old and faded that they've probably been around since the dinosaur age, too. If dinosaurs used place mats, that is. That is what my mind does when I'm quiet and it thinks too much. It sees dinosaurs eating off blue-and-white place mats.

"And apparently, this has been going on for some time," she says. "There are several photos in her camera."

Stop and imagine the word SEVERAL with a big spotlight shining on it. That's how Mama said it.


I pictured dinosaurs eating a leafy green salad with croutons on our place mats. Of course, the place mats were high up in the Jenningses' trees so that the dinosaurs could reach them.

"This is really incredible, Mysti," Dad said. "And not in a good way. Can you tell me why you thought this was a good idea?"

Here is a girl thinking this was a good idea because the mystery had tugged at her all summer long.

"I guess I was bored," I replied to my parents.

"Can you tell me why this is a violation of a person's rights?" Dad asked in his I'm-disappointed-in-you voice.

"Because the woman didn't know her picture was being taken," I replied.

Here is a girl thinking this is stating the obvious, seeing how the woman wasn't dressed to go to a store, much less to a photo shoot.

"That's right."

I wondered right then if he'd force me to apologize to Woman Who Goes Somewhere. That would speed up the mystery-solving in a snap.

"I don't know when you'll get your camera back," Mama said. Fine, I have a camera phone.

"And you're grounded until further notice." Fine, I don't go anywhere anyway.

"Yes, ma'am. Yes, sir."

Mama said, "When you know better?"

"You do better," I said.

This was the cue that the lecture had ended. As far as lectures went, that one wasn't too bad.

"Okay, go to your room. You may come out at dinner," Mama said. "I'm sure you can find something better to do than take pictures of unsuspecting people."

You might think, doesn't this girl have something better to do every day than take pictures of unsuspecting people?

But of course you know the answer is no. No, I don't. I've read all my favorite books four times. These books are now at risk of not being my favorites anymore. Their suspense is all exposed and the villains are plain as day.

It's summer, and our family doesn't do anything but read and play games and help Mama harvest the cantaloupes from the front and backyard gardens in the summer. You would think we were a family from out in the country, but we aren't. We are a family three blocks from Tom Thumb, where you can buy cantaloupes.

There are odder happenings at my house than homegrown cantaloupes. Stranger things. For one, I like to imagine I'm a character in a book. It makes the long, boring days go by faster.

These are the characters in my book.

There is a person who paints and cooks and never leaves the house.

A person with a job who gently tries to get everyone to leave the house together.

A bratty little unformed person who practices raising her eyebrow as a hobby.

And a girl person who would just like everyone to leave her alone by the window while she is trying to take photos of a mysterious walker.

These people. They would make for an interesting story.

chapter 2

My strange story begins inside a story. I really did come into this world believing I was a character in a book. For this, I blame and thank my parents. That is odd, I know. You see, it takes about ten years for anything that's broken in our house to be fixed. I mean fixed-fixed. Completely fixed or replaced-fixed. Not Oh, isn't this duct tape a creative way to keep the car's glove box closed?

No, it's not creative. It's sort of dumb. And it's not really fixed, is it?

But that's how things work around our house. So when I was two and jumped up and down on my bed "with the ferociousness of a wild beast" (my dad's words), I broke the metal frame that held up the mattress. My parents "fixed" the bed by propping up the broken corner with a whole mess of novels and chunky art books. Ten years later, there is still a stack of books propping up my bed. And Mama comes in and takes one and replaces another like I'm a library. What is the result of sleeping on a broken bed frame propped up with books? All the stories and images have seeped into my dreaming brain. I think this is why I'm unusual and often narrate my own life.

Well, there are worse things a girl could do with her mind.

At first my narrations were just childish things.

Here is a girl about to take over the land of Bathrobia!

Mama and Dad clapped and told me I was so original.

And then I let my dreams take me places I wanted to go.

Here is a girl riding a red bike through the streets of Paris, France. (I have long believed I was meant to be a French girl.)

Mama and Dad said that I would make a very nice French girl.

And then I let my narration solve my problems.

Here is a girl whose mother is driving the entire family to a restaurant where they make giant pizzas.

Mama and Dad looked at each other and said nothing.

"Did you like my story?" I asked.

And Mama said, "You're not really in a story, Mysti."

"But I am. It's not just my dreams that are different. It's our whole life!"

"We are a little different," Mama said. "But we have a lot of love."

"We've never been to a restaurant."

"I know."

"Well, why not?"

And she said, "Go fold your clothes before they wrinkle. We'll talk about that some other day."

Some other day never came. I stopped narrating bits of life in front of my parents. I only liked it when they agreed that my stories were possible.

I don't know much, but I realized that we don't really fix things good and done in my family. We hold them together with tape—real or imagined—and pretend everything's peachy. It's a trick not unlike being quiet at school so that kids will think you are smart.

I've thought about it and realized that maybe going to a restaurant isn't a necessary life skill.

The fact that we never go to a restaurant just became the topic we didn't speak of.

The fact that I knew other kids whose mothers actually left their houses stopped seeming so exotic.

The fact that my mom was a stay-at-home mom, a literal stay-at-home mom, became just that. A fact. She stayed at home all the time and painted and gardened and made fresh bread every other day and, yes, created a lot of love. And I began to wonder if a person really needed a mother who drove a car. Maybe one parent with a driver's license is enough.

Laura, my little sister, and I went to and from school on the bus. Sometimes we'd get a ride home with a friend. With Dad, we'd go to get groceries or school shoes or sometimes to the park. Once in a while, there was a trip to a doctor for a checkup. Once a month, the three of us would go to the local library. Dad was always the one behind the wheel of the old green Toyota with the duct-taped glove compartment, and Laura and I were always the passengers. Never Mama.

And we'd come back from wherever we'd gone and find Mama waiting for us at the kitchen table, reading an art book right next to the set of black-and-white hugging salt and pepper shakers. They look like two little ghosts in an embrace, and they've always been smack in the middle of our table. For a long time, I thought Mama read to them while we were gone.

Okay, salt and pepper, let me read to you about how to create harmony with color.

Mama's stay-at-home-ness was spoken of between Mama and Dad only in the night hours when they thought no one was listening. (But who cannot hear things inside a tiny house with thin walls?) There were little arguments over pamphlets she didn't want to read. The pamphlets on the subject we're not supposed to talk about were stuffed inside her Good Housekeeping magazines hidden in her nightstand drawer. I discovered these secret documents two years ago. (The insides of drawers need to be dusted, too.) I read some of them. Okay, I read all of them. I came to understand that Mama had something called agoraphobia, which according to those pamphlets meant having a strong fear about being in places or situations from which escape might be difficult, be embarrassing, or cause panic attacks.

No amount of paint could cover the thin walls of our house enough for me not to hear their soft voices describing how Mama felt this kind of fear. (Or maybe I crept down the hall and put my ear to their door.)

"Maybe just go out the front door and take a walk."

"I don't know, David."

"Well, you don't need to leave right now; you can practice later. Just practice. Practice takes courage, I know, so just take small steps. It would be good, you know for the girls to see you try."

"It's not like I want to be this way," Mama said. "But I—"

I never heard the rest of her sentence.

But every time I dusted in Mama's room, I read the pamphlets again. I wanted to make sure they were real. I never forgot this sentence: A highly developed imagination is often found in children of agoraphobic parents.

In the end, I considered that because I was a child of an agoraphobic parent, I'd come by my highly developed imagination naturally. It wasn't just those books propping up the broken corner of my old bed that made my mind stir with stories. It was also the benefit of having an über-stay-at-home parent. So I quit asking questions about other mothers and restaurants.

Dad quit trying to get her into the car to practice being courageous. Everything was fine. I guess as far as they were concerned, everything was fixed.

But if you keep turning the pages, the story will change. I'm not a huge fan of change. I don't like outgrowing my favorite shirt and having to look at my sister wearing it. I don't like daylight saving time, when all the clocks get out of whack and the light through the windows changes before I'm ready to wake up. I didn't even like it last week when the cable TV company decided in the middle of the night to change the channel lineup. Channel 130 is no longer Animal Planet but suddenly some stupid cooking channel.

"Why did they change this?"

"Change is good. Change teaches you to adjust," Dad said when I complained about the TV. Dad is a good listener. He will look you right in the face and say that change is coming for all of us, that it's the way of the world so we should be prepared. When Dad says "Change is coming for you," it sounds like a warning. It sounds like a big, flat-footed monster creeping through the streets in the night. It's coming for you!

"Well, you want to go to Paris someday, right? You talk about it all the time," he said. "How are you going to get there if not by change?" There's no denying that I want to go to Paris. I want to be there. But I don't want to go there. All the travel and how to get there and the complications of it make me wish you could just be magically beamed where you want to go.

"You get to Paris by flying, Dad!"

"Well, let me know when you grow wings."

Dad. Always making a joke when I want him to be serious. That will never change.

chapter 3

Here is a girl with long red hair, age twelve and two minutes, who wonders why the house is so quiet.

Maybe they think I'm unprepared for their surprise. I'm not. I'm decidedly ready for it.

I step into the hallway.

The house is too quiet. No showers running. No Cheerios hitting the bowl. No TV news reports broadcasting strife in a distant city. Nothing. Even my dog, Larry, is silent as a log.

And then,

"She doesn't even know what's about to happen."

I hear the whispering. My little brown-haired sister, Laura, giggling. A conspiracy is afoot.

I know what they are trying to do. Do they think they can trick me? Me? In our tiny, tiny house that's so small you can hear a dust bunny poop?

This is probably all my dumb sister's idea. I grab a handful of marbles from my bookshelf and hop across the hall to her room. I pull up her bottom bedsheet and spread the marbles all over. Later, she'll think she's sleeping on rocks.

Here is a girl about to turn the tables on her unsuspecting family.

I get on my hands and knees and crawl toward the dining room/art studio. My dog, Larry, sidles up to me and almost gives away my cover.

Shoo, Larry.

Then, I peek into the kitchen. I spot them. Their backs are to me. All in a huddle of intended surprise. They don't even know what's coming. They are expecting me to walk by the kitchen table. But there are two doors to the kitchen and none of them is watching this door. That's a rookie move, not guarding both doors.


They spin around. Mama jumps and hollers and grabs the countertop. "Oh my gosh, Mysti!" She puts her hand to her heart.

"Gotcha!" I say, and then I fall over laughing.

But now they are all smiling and happy as the paint color Lemon Yellow. I have to take a moment to really see what my eyes see.

Wrapped presents. A tall chocolate cake with twelve candles. One for each year I haven't been anywhere else but here.

"Happy birthday, Mysti!" Dad says. "Twelve, huh? Make a wish!" Twelve years from now, I will be in France. That is my wish. Poof, the candles are out and my wish is a smoke signal to the universe.

Mama hugs me. Then she pulls out something from behind the bread box.

"Now, it's not completely dry yet." It's an oil painting. A really beautiful painting. Red poppies in a sea of yellow-green grass. A pale blue sky. A red-haired girl in white shorts with her hair trailing behind her. Carefree me in an unknown place. Maybe France. Definitely France.

"Thanks, Mama." The painted me has never looked so good. In real life, I wish I looked as good as this painting. The long red hair matches mine. The light blue eyes. The tiny freckles across my cheeks. All that is fine. What doesn't match is that the painted girl has a nice smile. The real me does not. The real me has a mile-wide gap between my two front teeth. The real me does not smile like this. Why would she?

Dad presents me with a red kite, a book of jokes, and an IOU to fix the zigzag crack in my ceiling.

"Why didn't you just give me a roll of duct tape so I can fix it myself?" I tease.

"Hardy-har, Mysti! Hey, why don't cats play poker in the jungle?"


"Too many cheetahs."

Like me, my dad has thick red hair and blue eyes and the love of a good joke.

"Open mine next," Laura says, and I do. A book of stories I'd begged for. There are lots of blanks and you get to fill in some of the story ideas and change the direction of the plot. According to the back cover, within the pages there are 267 story possibilities.

I've tried to get the little brown-haired brat to pretend she's in a story, too. We could each write chapters, I said. We could invent magical lands or trips to the moon or being rock stars who sell Girl Scout cookies, I said.

Here is a girl giving wonderful lyrics and a box of Thin Mints to the president.

And Laura always says, No, tell me your stories, Mysti.

Laura. She's less of a do-it-yourself girl and more of a do-it-for-me kind of person. (I don't think she was born with a highly developed imagination.)

So I tell her my stories. Her favorite is about an eavesdropping owl.

The owl leans in near the bedroom windows of little girls. He listens. He gathers bits of talk about Barbies who lost their heads. And when he tells his friends what he heard, they just say, Who? Who?

And he has to gossip again.

Laura applauds. Laughs. And then kicks me out of her bed.

"I'm tired now. Go back to your own room," Laura says.

Well. Some listeners are ungrateful. Ungrateful listeners get marbles under their sheets.

"Eggy doodles for breakfast!" Mama announces. She spreads out a nice ironed tablecloth and sets up the kitchen table like we are in a fancy restaurant. Then she makes the most fabulous ham-and-cheesy eggy doodle in the history of eggy doodles.

"Eggy doodle for the birthday girl!" Mama says as she places a plate in front of me.

"And what about braces? This is the year for braces, right?"

There it is. The sharp glance between Mama and Dad. I know what I am doing, playing this trick. Even my dog, Larry, knows I will not be getting braces this year. Because even Larry knows there is only one adult here who drives.

"We will discuss it," Dad says finally. "How about you tell us a joke from your book?"

"We will discuss it" means that it will probably not be discussed anytime soon. I pick up the joke book.

"Why won't aliens eat clowns?" I ask.

"Why?" says Dad.

"Because they taste funny." That's not a bad joke. After breakfast I will text that joke to Anibal Gomez. Anibal Gomez is my one friend. I'm not still and quiet in front of him. I am myself.

chapter 4

Here is a girl winning the Nobel Prize for inventing a mobile orthodontist business that drives down neighborhood streets, and all the kids with crooked teeth chase after it and receive straight smiles.

Anibal Gomez isn't bothered by girls with bad teeth and transportation issues. And I'm not bothered by shy boys who are size extra, extra large, which is what he is. Anibal has someone to sit with him on the bus, and I have someone who won't invite me to parties I will just have to say no to. (As they would say in France, this friendship is parfait, which is French for "perfect.")

I shared with Anibal this last story excerpt about winning the Nobel Prize for mobile orthodontia.

"You have crazy ideas," Anibal said. "Of all the mothers in the world, your mother is the least likely one to let you go chasing after a random orthodontist."

"It's a story!"

"I guess that could be a good idea for you," he said. "Especially since your mama—"

"Shut up!" I interrupted. "Don't say it."

"I was just going to say since your mama won't have to keep looking at your teeth. Geesh. You're so sensitive."

If you know Anibal like I do, you would know that is a compliment. Sort of. He didn't say the secret thing about Mama.

One day during fifth-grade recess, we traded family secrets.

"Since I was eight, I've had to sleep on a broken water bed filled with stuffed animals," he said. Of course, I loved that his family also fixed things in unusual ways.

"Since I was five, my mother has never left our house," I said. I waited. Nothing. Not even a blink. It sealed Anibal Gomez as my best friend.

"My mother works at the dollar store," he said. "I can get you a Justin Bieber poster."

"My mother grows cantaloupes in the backyard," I said. "And my dad eats them all, and I don't care for Justin Bieber."

Anibal is still the most trustworthy person I know. There's no trying to discover his hidden meanings, which I have to say is a problem I have with girls. They are all "Guess what I'm thinking," and Anibal is all "Here's exactly what I'm thinking."

Which is why I took Anibal at his straightforward word when he called to wish me a happy birthday and to present a new idea. A theory, really.

As long as Anibal is in the world, there will never be a shortage of theories.

"I'm conducting a social experiment. You will be part of the experiment."

"What do I have to do?"

"Pretend you don't know me."


"I've decided to be a hipster this year."

"You can't just decide that. You have to be called that by someone first. Develop a reputation."

"I bought a hat," Anibal said. "And I think Sandy Showalter likes the hipsters. This is the year of Anibal and Sandy. Sandy will notice me and go with me to the fall social. She probably won't notice me if, you know, another girl is in the way. So, there you go. That's how you are part of the experiment."

"But why not just introduce yourself to Sandy? Even I could do that."

"It's the theory of the world, Mysti. Girls like Sandy are only nice to people who fit in. The world is cruel that way, but what are you gonna do?"

"Are you saying I am a person who does not fit in?"

There is silence on the other end of the phone. Loud silence.

"I don't know," I finally said. "Why should I do this for you?"

"Two words. Talent. Show."

"What? Wait a minute. I have to think about this," I told Anibal.

"Talent. Show!"

"Okay, I get it."

Lightning and thunder. I knew those two words would come back to haunt me one day.

chapter 5

Here is a talentless girl who had the impossible dream of winning the Beatty Middle School talent contest.

Last year's talent show was not one of my better ideas, I admit. Maybe it was a story idea that should've stayed in my head. I'm usually more cautious about putting myself in the white-hot spotlight of embarrassment. But when I picture myself with Anibal, well, everything else—the kids' comments, gum stuck on my shoe, a bad hair day—all those things fall away like dry leaves.

So I'd written my name down with Anibal, and he said he'd do it if I came up with the talent. We didn't know if we had any talent beyond surviving the bus ride home and making fun of our lunches.

You call that a tuna sandwich?

No, I call it Fred.

Who eats a hot dog without a bun?


On Sale
Aug 12, 2014
Page Count
304 pages

Karen Harrington

About the Author

Karen Harrington was born in Texas, where she still lives with her husband and children. She is the author of Sure Signs of Crazy and Courage for Beginners. You can visit her

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