For Ages
10 to 99

Thirteen-year-old twins Vick and Tara have built an incredible machine—a loyal robotic watchdog named Daisy. But, when local crime boss Ms. Alba schemes to add Daisy to her robot army, Vick and Tara must go to great lengths to protect their prized pet. Because Daisy is more than just any robot—she’s their constant protector, and together the three make a great team.

Vick and Tara are determined to stop the mob from tearing their little family apart. And they might just succeed! Sure, the evil Ms. Alba has more robot watchdogs, but none are as smart—or as faithful—as their Daisy. Plus, if things get too dangerous, Tara could always upgrade their pet. With her mechanical skills, she could make Daisy bigger, stronger, and a lot more intimidating!

A Junior Library Guild Selection
A 2019-2020 Texas Bluebonnet Award Master List Selection

"Engaging, suspenseful, and with nearly all the vivid fighting confined to robots, this gritty tale is perfect for a younger audience than most post-apocalyptic stories." —Kirkus Reviews

"This compelling drama with cool tech themes and bad guys getting their comeuppance is a winner." —SLJ

An Excerpt fromWatchdog

Chapter 1



Vick never got used to the smell. Usually he stopped noticing bad smells after a while, but the eye-watering stink of mountains of trash baking in the blazing August sun was so bad, it made every breath an ordeal. And then there were the flies buzzing around Vick’s face, landing on him with their tickly legs. He never got used to them, either.


Vick plunged his hand into the hole he was digging in the mountain of cardboard, plastic, dirty diapers, rotting bits of meat, used coffee filters, old socks, sticky wrappers, and unidentifiable sludge. There were already holes in the gloves he’d bought last week, so his bare fingertips were covered in filth he didn’t even want to think about. His back ached.


It wasn’t even noon yet. Still hours to go.


His fingers brushed something hard and metallic. Vick dug faster, widening the hole. By now he could tell immediately when he’d struck something with potential. Tossing handfuls of trash aside, he exposed a blood-red tube. He tugged it free, then brushed crud off of it.


It was L‑shaped, with fine wires trailing out of one end. He held it up and looked around for his twin sister. “Tara? Is this any good?”


Vick scanned the dump, which stretched for three blocks of West Town, with trash piled to the third floor of the surrounding semicondemned redbrick tenement buildings and spilling down side streets. Dozens of people were working the mounds, dragging sacks of salvage behind them.


Mert, the woman who owned Peary Pawn and Title, had told Vick the dump started when the city ran out of money and couldn’t afford to send garbage trucks around to pick up people’s trash anymore. At first everyone tossed their trash out windows onto the sidewalk; then they realized it was no fun to smell their trash all day, so they started dumping it in spots where there weren’t many people around to complain.


Tara was nowhere in sight. Huffing, Vick trudged around the base of the mound he was working on, arms spread to aid his balance as his feet sank into the trash.


She was sitting on a filthy mattress on the opposite side of the mound, waving off the flies and laughing as she watched a TV show on a decrepit handheld with a missing back panel. Vick had no clue how she’d gotten it working, but it didn’t surprise him. Wild audience laughter drifted from the handheld. Vick guessed she was watching Boffo, a reality show where people gave domestic robots tricky orders so the robots would do the wrong things and look stupid. It was one of her favorite shows.




She didn’t hear him. Classic Tara.


He raised his voice. “Tara.”


Her smile vanished. She went to hide the handheld behind her back, then realized it was pointless.


“Remember what those first weeks were like? Remember being really, really hungry?”


“Of course I remember.” She reached up and twirled her hair nervously, glaring into empty space to Vick’s right. She almost never looked to his left, always his right. And she never, ever, looked directly at him.


“If we don’t work, there’s no dinner.”


“I know that. Do you think I don’t know that? I know that.”


“Then put the handheld away and help me.” Vick held up the component he’d unearthed. “Is this any good?”


Tara rose and trudged toward him, her pet robot hopping along at her heels looking like a cross between a big rat and a rag doll, its cobbled-together parts all mismatched, its face nothing but a snout and eyes on scuffed silver metal. “Let me see.”


Vick handed her the L‑shaped tube. She held it close and squinted, her whole face scrunching. “It’s from a dishwasher.”


“Is it any good?”


Tara reared back and threw it. She didn’t have much of an arm--it clattered to the ground a dozen feet away. “Sure. If you’re repairing a dishwasher.”


“Fine. Now can you please get back to work? This is serious. If we work hard enough, soon we’ll be able to rent our own place.”


“With royal blue carpet and shell tile in the kitchen. And a white concrete birdbath in the backyard in the corner by the water recycler.”


A sudden wave of homesickness mixed with sympathy for Tara nearly doubled Vick over. He squeezed his eyes shut until it passed. As much as it ever passed. Routine and sameness were so important for Tara--a classic symptom of autism. “It won’t be exactly the same as home, Tara. But it’ll be nice. You can have your own room.”


Tara just stood there, arms dangling at her sides, gazing off to Vick’s right. A cloud of flies buzzed around her head. A few landed on the corners of her mouth.


“Please help me. Dig. You’re the one who knows what we’re looking for. What we can sell.”


“Okay. I’m sorry.” She knelt where she was and picked at the trash, moving it a piece at a time. The little robot sat beside her, wagging its rat tail.


“I know it’s disgusting. I hate it, too.”


“You can go away now. You’re bothering me,” Tara said.


Vick sighed as he turned away. You never had to guess with Tara; she always gave it to you straight. He headed back to his spot. Behind him Tara began humming tunelessly.


Sometimes Tara drove him crazy. Before, Mom had handled Tara’s meltdowns, her insistence that nothing ever change--not even the order of the utensils set beside her plate. So much had changed since those days, and that meant Tara’s symptoms--the meltdowns, the retreating into her own world--had gotten worse. Now they didn’t have utensils. Sometimes they didn’t even have food, although not as often as during the first awful weeks after Mom died.


Vick didn’t want to think about that time. Better to think about the future. Things were looking up--they were earning a little money, and every day that went by they got a little older, a little better able to take care of themselves. Eight more months and they’d be fourteen. In a few years, thanks to Tara’s brilliance with electronics, they could open their own repair shop. It felt good to have a plan, to know things were going to keep improving from here on out.


Vick stopped digging and listened. Tara had stopped working again. Sighing in frustration, he went around the mound and found her on her knees, monkeying with something she was holding close to her face.


Vick rolled his eyes toward the cloudless sky. “Please. Please stop goofing off and dig.”


“I found something,” Tara said, breathless.


Vick took a step toward her and tried to make out what she was holding. It was tiny, not much bigger than the flies. “Is it good? Can we use it?”


“It’s . . . weird.” She went on fiddling with it.


“Don’t waste too much time on it,” he pleaded. “You can figure out what it is tonight.”


Tara didn’t hear him, or pretended not to. From his angle, her profile was hidden by her dirty-blond hair (with the emphasis on dirty). Every morning he tied it back with a rubber band to try to keep it clean, and within an hour she took it out. She was so small she could pass for a seven-year-old. With the difference in their sizes, and Vick’s dark hair and Tara’s light, no one could believe they were twins.


“Come on, Tara. Please.”


“Okay, fine.” She stashed the thing in the back pocket of her jeans. Vick returned to his spot. As he dug, he pictured Tara fishing that stupid component out of her pocket as soon as he wasn’t looking, and he knew--absolutely, positively knew--that was what she’d done.


“Put it away,” he called, knowing she would dutifully put it away, dig for five minutes, and then take it out again. Why did he waste his breath?




Chapter 2



It always felt strange to step back onto pavement after sixteen hours wading on thirty feet of trash. The ground felt so hard, his feet so light.


It was almost dark, and the last sun rays gave the unlit lights down West Huron Street a glow, a reminder of when Vick was a little kid, before the economy crashed and everything turned bad. Bad in the poor neighborhoods, anyway. The lights were still shining in the wealthy neighborhoods on the north side.


After turning on North Trumbull and walking part of the way down the block, he realized Tara was no longer beside him. He jolted to a stop.


Tara was still walking straight on West Huron, staring down at the doohickey she’d found.


“Tara.” His voice turned into an odd croak halfway through. Maybe his voice was changing. That would be good--if his voice got deeper and he looked more like a man, he’d come across as less of an easy target. Thirteen was a bad age to be homeless. Not young and cute enough for pity, but not old enough to hold their ground against grown-ups.


Tara stopped and looked around until she spotted Vick. She broke into a grin. “You trying to give me the slip?”


“I think it’s the other way around. Come on.”


She trotted to catch up, her squirrel-sized robot following dutifully. Tara’s eyes suddenly grew wide, and she pointed. “Look, look, look. It’s beautiful.” She kept on running right past Vick, her long, smooth strides eating up ground, robo-pup racing after her.


“Wait, where are you--” Then Vick spotted what had Tara so excited. Across the street, a huge watchdog was prowling along the sidewalk, accompanied by a half-dozen mean-looking guys in matching neon-green stretch shirts, their hair dyed white. The watchdog was chest-high on the men and made from gleaming chrome. Tara was heading right for it.


“Tara. Wait.” Vick sprinted after her, but even though he was six inches taller and had lost those extra pounds, his twin was still faster.


A couple of the men jolted in surprise as Tara ran right up to the watchdog, chattering.


“I’m sorry. She doesn’t know what she’s doing,” Vick said, breathless as he caught up.


“I don’t know what I’m doing? You don’t know what you’re doing,” Tara said.


“Don’t worry about it,” one of the men said, his voice a low growl. He had a bald stripe shaved down the center of his long white hair, and arms like steel pipes. “You like watchdogs?”


“I love watchdogs.” Tara reached up and set her hand between the thing’s shoulder blades, which rose and fell like levers as it walked. It didn’t seem to notice. People called them watchdogs, but you could build them to look like anything--a tiger, a spider, a velociraptor--or they could resemble nothing at all. This one looked like a cross between a pit bull and a four-legged T. rex. It had an oversized head, with dozens of silver fangs bristling inside massive jaws. The body was squat and powerful, the hind legs shorter than the front ones.


One look at it was enough to know it was designed to be a fighter. It was technically illegal to create a robot designed to kill, but it was a gray area. Even a domestic robot could crush someone’s windpipe, and it was hard to know what a robot could do just by looking at it. As long as you didn’t outfit one with an automatic weapon you could probably get away with anything, especially in bad areas like this one. Police rarely ventured into this neighborhood anymore, and when they did they definitely had no interest in tangling with a watchdog.


“His rear hip joints are ball and socket, aren’t they?” Tara asked, her blue eyes bright with interest.


“Tiny’s? I have no idea,” the guy said. “Somebody else designed him. I just bought him.”


“For ninety grand,” the tall, lean guy walking next to him muttered. “We could’ve bought a whole gun store for that.”


The guy with the bald stripe glared. “You want to scare someone? Point a gun at him. You want him to crap his pants? Sic one of these on him.”


Vick wanted to yank Tara out of there, but Stripe had said she was fine, and Vick didn’t want to make Stripe angry.


“What’s in the sack?” the guy trailing the pack asked Vick.


“Just . . . clothes.” Vick’s heart was thumping so hard he was afraid it was going to burst through his chest. “Tara, it’s time to go.”


Tara ignored him. She pointed at her little robo-pup, which wasn’t a whole lot bigger than one of Tiny’s paws clanking along the sidewalk. “I designed my watchdog all by myself.”


The men burst out laughing.


Stripe motioned at them to cut it out, then turned back to Tara. “You really built that yourself ? I’m impressed.”


“I’m good with electronics.”


“You must be.” Stripe slowed to a halt. “Listen, we have some work to do in here, so you need to go home now, okay?”


“We don’t have a home,” Tara said as Vick grasped her upper arm. “We live on a roof.”


Stripe gave her an impatient look. “Then go on back to your roof.”


She tugged against Vick’s grip as he pulled her across the street. “Ow. Let me go.”


“Shut up. Come on.”


Vick glanced back at the men, who were gathered around the watchdog. Stripe was pointing at the building’s front door. “Sic ’em, Tiny. Everyone inside.”


“Oh, crud,” Vick hissed under his breath, trying not to panic. “We have to get out of here.”


The watchdog lowered its massive head, opened its steel jaws, and let out a high-pitched, piercing metallic shriek.


It charged the door.


Vick wanted to run, but Tara was like an anchor.


The steel beast moved quickly, smoothly. The door snapped right in half when the watchdog hit it with his huge head, one half bursting into the street, the other buckling inward.


Shouts erupted inside.


Tara clapped her hands over her ears and squeezed her eyes closed. “I don’t like that. Make it stop.”


Vick tugged her down the street. He needed to get her out of earshot of those screams before she had a total meltdown. Tara stumbled along, making a panicked keening sound that grew louder and louder.


“Deep breaths, Tara.” It was something Mom used to say when Tara was losing it, although, come to think of it, it had never helped much.


It didn’t help now. Vick managed to get Tara a block away from the gang before she had a full-fledged meltdown right on the sidewalk, her arms and legs flailing, her screams ear-piercing. There wasn’t much Vick could do except put Tara’s head in his lap so she didn’t bump it, and wait for her to calm down.


“It’s okay. Everything’s okay,” he said in a soothing tone. When Mom was still alive, Tara would have maybe one of these meltdowns a month; now it was more like twice a week.

Under the Cover