In Margo’s experience – and she liked to think she had a few – there were two survival skills that mattered. Could be more, actually, but two you couldn’t do without: patience and imagination.
The reason she knew this was very simple: growing up in an orphanage, you wouldn’t last a week without them. Patience was essential, because that’s what it took to get through the waiting. And there was a lot of waiting, too much to keep track: for breakfast, for dinner, for the end of Miss Hattie’s temper tantrums... And then, of course, the long Wait with a capital “W”, for the day they’d finally get adopted. Staying patient through all of it sure wasn’t easy – cue the Box of Shame, which was hardly ever empty at all. But it helped that there were three of them, and when they ran out of patience, there was still imagination. They always made sure to have plenty of that.
Which made it all the more amazing that of all the lives they’d dreamed for themselves, they could never have imagined the one they’d ended up living.
Edith and Agnes, of course, were claiming they had. Then again, they also insisted high and low on faeries flying faster than planes, and Miss Hattie riding a broomstick at night. But Margo knew better. They’d been as stumped by this house as she was, and just as excited to find new adventures behind every door. Some of them dangerous – like when they found that cute little robot in the attic, the one that almost took their toes off while they weren’t looking – but they could handle it. After all, the orphanage was hardly a picnic either, and at least here, imagination was never in short supply.
Patience, on the other hand…
“Margo! Look, Margo, what Robbie made me! Look, look, look, look, look, look...”
With a long-suffering sigh, Margo retrieved her hand from where a bouncing purple shape was tugging at it with vigor.
“Agnes…” she admonished, then had to stop to push back the new glasses that kept sliding down across her nose. “I just need ten more minutes to finish my essay, okay? Can’t you –”
The tugging stopped, abruptly, to be replaced by a sigh even more long-suffering than hers. Agnes was a master in looking heartbroken and, right now, was putting so much effort into it that it made her face go bright red. Margo stifled a grin.
“Oh, all right.” She twisted the cap back onto her pen as Agnes’ face lit up. “Show me, then. Just… Robbie, who’s Robbie?” She peered at the group of five, no, six Minions chattering in the doorway, and tried to remember their names. No luck, of course. While she had a few favorites – Jorge was a sweetie, and so were Rosita and Jeff – she’d swear Margo and Edith made new friends by the hour, so it was all she could do just to keep upwith who was who . She must be getting old, she thought. And if at eleven-and-a-half she was already thinking that, how bad would it be by the time she turned eighteen?
“There’s Robbie.” Agnes indicated the leftmost member of the group. The Minion beamed and pointed at his T-shirt, which was bright green and spelled “I love unicourns” in a clumsy, unmistakable handwriting. Not that the subject didn’t give it away. “He made me a bouquet, look!”
“That’s… um… very pretty,” Margo said, twirling the proffered ‘bouquet’ around in her hands. It had something resembling stalks, all right, but they were grey and leafless and smelled an awful lot like burnt rubber. But the flowers were real, if more than a little wilted. She returned the whole thing to Agnes, who went back to clutching it tightly. “Hey – where’s Edith?” She frowned. “I thought you two were watching TV downstairs?”
“We were gonna watch telly-vision,” Agnes, who had barely seen a TV-set in her life and so could be forgiven for not being able to pronounce it, retorted. “But then the news came on – you know, with the man who has hair like Miss Hattie, only taller? Taller hair I mean, not a taller man. Well, he is taller, too, but that’s not what I –”
“Yeah, yeah, I know him,” Margo cut her short. She didn’t know why, but suddenly she was getting a mighty weird feeling about this. Especially because Agnes’ expression, now that she thought about it, wasn’t so much cheerful as… nervous? She frowned, worried. “So – what happened?”
“Um.” Agnes wiggled her toes in her furry white slippers, looking confused. “It’s – I dunno…”
“Show me then.” Margo pushed herself from the chair, taking Agnes’s free hand. “Agnes? Come on, show me.”
She followed a tiptoeing Agnes down the stairs and on to the living room, and together, they peered around the corner. It took a few seconds before Margo could make out anything in the gloom, but then Agnes pointed, and sure enough, there was Gru, sitting in his favorite armchair. Still dressed in his bland working-day suit, he was staring at the TV screen and generally looking… well, ‘miserable’ seemed like a pretty decent word.
“He’s been like that for an hour,” a voice piped up from behind them, and Margo jumped despite herself. That was Edith, of course – in the kind of high-pitched whisper that always ended up being noisier than just talking out loud.
“Shh!! He’ll hear us!” Agnes interjected, at about the same volume. Margo glared, but apparently Gru was too focused on his brooding to hear them talk.
“How –” She leaned back against the doorjamb, biting the inside of her cheek. “How did he get like this?” Looking from Edith to Agnes, then back to Edith again. “What happened?”
One of Edith’s elbows collided with her hip. “He’s watching the repeats, look!”
Margo almost lost her balance as Agnes tried to squeeze between her legs to get a better view. “Wait, Margo, I can’t –”
“Shut up!” she hissed, and to her shock, that actually did the trick.
It was the news, all right – she’d know that slick newsreader’s voice everywhere – and the three of them hurried to lean in closer.
“… seems that after the theft and reappearance of the moon, a long series of spectacular crimes has come to an end. By whom they were committed is likely to remain a mystery, but everyone agrees: while this country seems once again to have become a safer place, it has also turned a little less interesting.” Pause; rustling of paper. “Now, in other news…”
“Um,” Agnes said, face oozing confusion.
“Huh?” Edith’s forehead puckered. “What did he…”
“I’m going inside,” Margo said, decisively, and shoved at the door.
Something was wrong, she thought, when Gru didn’t move a muscle except to nod a vague hello. Seriously, horribly, spectacularly wrong, because if there was one thing Gru had never done, even in the early days when all he did was complain, it was sitting in a corner moping. He’d either throw a tantrum, which involved yelling at them and the Minions and the whole universe and its unfairness for about ten minutes, or he’d go all quiet and scary and start thinking of a plan. But tonight, it didn’t look like he was thinking very hard, or looking very angry. Instead, he just seemed… sad.
“Hi”, Margo said cautiously, beckoning at Agnes and Edith to come in. “How was, ah – work today?” she improvised, blurting out the first question that came to her.
Gru raised an eyebrow, then sighed. “Well, what ees there to say? I worked. That’s the point of ‘work’, no? Everything else ees propaganda.” His eyes lit up abruptly as he spotted the movement at the door. “Hello, Agnes,” he said, lilting the ‘l’s with some enthusiasm. “Hello, Edith.”
“Yeah, but – is everything okay?” Margo continued, stubbornly. “I mean, we thought… you’re looking a little…” Swallowing back ‘weird’, she just settled for, “tired?”
“Oh, yes!” Gru intoned, sweeping his arms into a dramatic gesture. “Seeing as moving papers from one corner of a desk to another is eenfinitely more tiring than the subtle art of veellainy, how can I not be exhausted?” He leaned back and put his feet on the coffee table, shooting Margo a mock-scowl as if to say topic closed now, move on. But after six years of Miss Hattie, Margo knew sarcasm when she heard it.
“Papers?” Edith dropped into the sofa, pulling her feet up under her. “But you said they made you a con… thingy.”
“Consultant, yes,” Gru said wearily. “Theft-prevention consultant, if you want a beeger word. So I don’t push papers around. Only people. No deeference.”
“What’s a consullant?” Agnes asked, clutching Robbie’s bouquet so tightly Margo feared for its survival.
Gru picked up the TV remote and scowled at it. “Actually, it ees very simple. People come tell me how they do – things. Then they want me to say if what they deed so far is good or bad, and what they should do better.” He pulled a face, as if annoyed at his own description – whether because it was the wrong or the right one, Margo couldn’t tell.
Agnes’ mouth pursed with concentration. Then she brightened. “Like Santa?”
For a second Gru looked like he was about to argue with that, then thought better of it. “Yes, yes,” he muttered. “Like Santa and his book of naughty children. Hence all the papervork – I’m happy you understand!”
Are you? Margo wanted to say. Happy? But she kept her mouth shut. Instead, she walked over to the TV and pressed the ‘off’ button, then asked, as innocently as she could, “Is it a nice job? I mean – compared to being a villain, it does sound a little boring, but…” She turned around just in time to see Gru flinch at the word ‘villain’, then mask it behind a forced laugh.
“Gurls, compared to being a villain, everything ees boring! We had this talk before, no? Given our financial situation – there ees no money – and villainy not being the most secure of professions, I…”
“… you had to take a boring job,” Edith supplied, a little too helpfully.
“A secure job!” Gru retorted, jabbing his finger into the air with some of his old energy. “And a good thing, too! Let’s not forget, gurls, I now have your futures to consider. Speaking of which –” he trailed off, pointedly checked his watch. “Unless Dr. Nefario has been feeddling with that Time Transformer again, it is now… Let me see –”
“Oh, blast.” That was Edith, of course.
“– twenty meenutes past your official bedtime. Which means…”
“Aww…” Edith groaned.
“That wasn’t a yawn,” Agnes protested, closing her mouth halfway through one. “I was stretching my face!”
“No, no, no, no protest will be tolerated!” Gru harrumphed, finally getting up from his seat to shoo first Agnes, then a still-sputtering Edith, into the hallway. “Nor will pouting, sighing, cursing, arguing, or any other type of complaining! We made a deal, did we not? Yes, we deed! When there ees school, no arguing about bedtime – or you know what that means in turms of bedtime stories.” A squeal of disappointment from both girls, and Gru’s eyes, when they met Margo’s, almost had their twinkle back. “Margo, shut the door behind you, please?”
Nodding, Margo turned the knob, then trailed behind Gru and the others, who were tottering upstairs like a clumsy three-headed creature with too much to drink. On a different day, she’d have joined in the protest for sure, giggling and pleading along just for the fun of it. For once, though, she was perfectly happy to be tucked into bed, Gru’s thick vowels stringing into a story – because he always did read them one, despite threats to the contrary. For a villain, he wasn’t all that great in making his demands stick. Maybe, Margo mused, pulling the blankets closer about her, that was part of the problem.
She brought it up the next day during lunch break, as they ate their peanut butter sandwiches under the schoolyard’s big oak tree. Both the tree and the sandwiches had taken some getting used to – in the orphanage, the bread had been as dry as the playground, even on the best of days – but they were slowly settling into the new routine.
“Do you think he likes his new job?” Margo asked the others. She peeled one slice from her sandwich, and put the other one back into her bread box. That was a habit she’d picked up in the orphanage: trying to make every slice last. Never mind Gru’s lunches were too big half of the time and ginormous the other half, she couldn’t seem to stop doing it even if she tried. “I mean… I guess he took it for the money, and, you know, for us, but…”
“He hates the job,” Edith said, having finished her dessert lollipop and now starting on her sandwiches. Margo suspected that was orphanage reflex, too. “Did you see his face yesterday? When you said that consul-whaddyacallit sounded boring?”
“But it is boring!” Agnes chimed in. Then, meekly, “Isn’t it?”
Margo took out her own lollipop – her second-to-favorite, cherry and cream – and licked sparingly. “I have no idea.” She let out a sigh. “But I think he misses being a villain. He seemed…. I don’t know. Happier, back then.” She paused to let a bunch of other kids walk by, ignoring the pointed looks in their direction. That was a part they were still getting used to. In the orphanage, sticking together was a matter of survival, plain and simple. But here at school, it seemed like it was every kid for himself. Unsurprisingly, living in a scary-looking house with a – let’s be honest – scary-looking man who wasn’t even their real dad, wasn’t helping their popularity. Not that they really cared.
“We have to help him,” she went on, when the kids were out of earshot. “I mean – it’s not fair that he should have to give up doing what he loves, right? There’s gotta be another way.”
“Yeah, but – what can we do?” Edith flicked the crumbs from her skirt. “It’s not like we have any money, or anything.”
“I still have a cookie robot!” Agnes proffered. “Maybe we could use it to…”
“That’s very nice, Agnes, but I don’t think that will – hey!!” Margo cut herself off, jumping up and sprinting towards the group of kids they saw before. “Hey, what do you think you’re doing!?” She skidded to a stop next to a pale-faced little boy, looking on the verge of tears. The reason wasn’t hard to see – a scruffy toy dragon was being tossed from hand to hand within the group, the boy’s eyes flicking along with it. “That’s really brave, isn’t it?” she scoffed. “Stealing toys from someone younger than you are?”
One girl, who looked like the oldest of the bunch, turned to smirk at her. “Oh, don’t tell me. You’re gonna stop us, right?”
“That’s right,” she said, planting her hands on her hips for effect. She wasn’t sure how much good that would do, but it helped to impress Agnes and Edith anyway, so it couldn’t hurt to try.
The older girl laughed – the sort of laugh that might have sounded nice, if only the face she pulled with it wasn’t so snotty. “I see.” Another smirk, this one deliberately goading. “Like, you and what army, huh? You tell me –”
It all happened too fast to make out the details. One moment the girl was just talking, still with that superior look on her face; the next, Margo couldn’t even see her face anymore. What she could see was hair, lots and lots of it – only it didn’t really look like hair anymore, but more like a giant, fuzzy ball of blond… fluff.
She wheeled around just in time to see Agnes stuff a shiny, metallic thing back into her rucksack.
Edith’s grin was one of undisguised triumph.
As for that grin – Margo had been pretty sure Edith would lose it once they were sitting in detention that night. But to her credit, she didn’t lose it at all. Pretending well enough to fool the teachers, maybe, but not Agnes and her.
It was the headmistress who finally came to get them, ushering them into an office where Gru was already waiting, along with Edith’s teacher. Dressed in a dirty turtlenecked sweater and shabby pants – which, Margo suspected, was because he and Dr. Nefario still worked on stuff after hours – he looked almost more out of place there than they felt.
“Now, girls.” The headmistress squinted at them over her glasses, which were huge and pink and more than a little distracting. Margo quickly stared at her own knees, which she guessed wasn’t too polite, but still, better than a giggling fit. “I’m sure your dad is wondering why you were in detention, so…”
Agnes snorted. “He’s not our dad.”
“He’s our adoptive dad,” Edith pointed out. “Well, there’s a difference,” she added, at the teacher’s dismayed look. Part of the difference being, of course, that they didn’t call him ‘Dad’ just yet. Margo used to have a dad, who died, so that didn’t quite work, and they were still figuring out what to say instead. So far they’d tried, with varying enthusiasm, plain ‘Gru’, ‘uncle Gru’ and ‘Pop’, but none of those stuck.
“Fine.” The headmistress narrowed her eyes, leaned towards them across the cluttered desk. “Then why don’t you tell your adoptive dad why you were in detention. Girls?”
Margo took a breath. “There, uh… There was this little boy, being bothered by some older kids –”
“They took his pet dragon!” Agnes squealed, indignantly.
“Yeah, they did,” Margo said, shooting Agnes a warning look. “They were messing around with his toy, so I… I told them to stop.”
“And?” The teacher raised a pair of stern, penciled-on eyebrows at them. Gru, on the other hand, still seemed far more puzzled than angry.
“Well, they didn’t,” Margo said, then paused again. “Stop, I mean.” Next to her, Edith was sitting with her arms crossed, making impatient noises, which didn’t really help her focus on the story. “So, um…”
“So I blew up her hair using this,” Edith blurted, before Margo could stop her. She shrugged and pointed at an object on the desk, almost obscured by several stacks of paper.
Gru followed her look – and his face lit up like a kid’s in a candy store.
“You deed?” he beamed, then, at the shock on the teacher’s face, tried an unconvincing scowl. “That is very naughty, gurls!” he chided, but in a tone that suggested they were anything but. Bending over the desk and its contents, his eyes were positively gleaming. “What, ah – what ees it?”
“Well…” Margo said, sheepishly. “We asked Dr Nefario if he could make us a freeze ray, too, you know – like, a little one? Just in case we needed it?”
Gru frowned. “But this is not a freeze r – Oh.”
“ ‘Frizz’ ray? You get it?” Edith said, with a snort. “Apparently, they’re really easy to confuse.”
Agnes giggled. “I like it.”
“Well, I agr – ahem,” Gru trailed off, because the headmistress was fuming now, red blotches beginning to spread across her face. “Gurls – ” He stuck up a warning finger, in what Margo recognized as his best Miss Hattie impersonation. “We will talk about thees at home! You hear me? There will be consequences!” Another attempt at looking grave. “Now, apologize to your teachers, and then we can go.”
“Apologize?” Edith sputtered. “But –”
“Get it over with, gurls.” In a voice that, for once, brooked no protest. “I have no eentention of sitting here all night.”
Good point, Margo thought, and muttered, “We’re sorry, Miss,” as meekly as she could. Which wasn’t very, but the headmistress still seemed mollified. After a second, the others joined in.
That, it seemed, was all it took for them to be able to make their escape. But Edith’s scowl and Agnes’s pout still followed her all the way towards the car. Gru, on the other hand, looked almost elated.
“That wasn’t so bad, now, was eet?” he said happily, snapping the door shut behind them before climbing into the driver’s seat. “So, gurls! What do you say –”
“Why do we have to say we’re sorry?” Edith protested, as Margo helped her fasten her seat belt. “It’s those other kids who started it!”
“Yeah. We were just helping.” Agnes’s eyes were huge and fast turning to weepy.
Margo patted her head and added, quietly, “Anyway, we didn’t mean it. You know that, right? So if it’s a lie, why should we even pretend we’re s–”
“Stealth,” Gru said, out of the blue. He fastened one hand on the steering wheel, using the other to tug at the rear-view mirror. In it, his eyes looked very dark, very narrow, and totally serious. “Stealth – you remember? Didn’t I explain how that ees the most vital skill for a veellain? Yes, I deed! And you know what ees almost as important?” He paused dramatically before turning the key in the ignition. “Knowing to take a punch if you have to – because veectory will only taste sweeter!”
“A punch?” Agnes sniffled, as the engine came to life with a roar.
“Well, not a leeteral punch, but…”
“So, what’s our victory?” Edith asked, sounding skeptical.
“What ees your –” Gru sputtered, and twisted around in his seat. “What ees your veectory? Gurls, whether you want to be the hero or the veellain, you should at least be aware of your goals, no?” He let out a sigh that Margo wasn’t quite sure was feigned. “Margo,” he addressed her, earnestly. “You know, don’t you?”
“Well…” she said, squeezing Agnes’s and Edith’s hands. “We did help that little boy, didn’t we, guys?”
Gru beamed at her. “Quite right, Margo! You deed help the boy, which, if I’m not mistaken, is what you set out to do. As for the ‘sorry’ –” He lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper, “that ees simply to keep a low profile. Deflect attention! After all, no need for the whole world to know our secrets, ees there?” Beside her, Agnes shook her head slowly; after a second, Edith did the same. “Good! I am proud of you gurls! Though I need to have a talk with Nefario about building you weapons without consulting me. But I’m sure he deed it with the best of inten –”
“You miss it, don’t you?” That was Edith, having worked up her best don’t-mess-with-me look, and now training it on Gru full force.
“Miss? What on earth do you –”
“Being a villain,” Margo said, which made Gru trail off mid-sentence. “Well, don’t you?” she insisted. “The way you talk about it, it’s really not that hard to see. You loved that job, and then you had to quit to take another one.”
“A boring one,” Agnes added, with a sigh as long-suffering as it was loud. “Can’t you just be a villain again? Please?”
“Yeah, just quit the consultant thing,” Edith joined in. “Good riddance!”
“I CAN’T –” Gru pinched the bridge of his nose, breathing heavily. “I cannot – quit,” he said, not meeting their eyes but staring fixedly outside the window. “I need this job. It ees a good job, a secure job, well paid – which is less of a detail than you gurls might think, so –”
“But who says you can’t take a second job?” Margo unbuckled her own seat belt so she could nudge Gru’s shoulder. In profile, his face looked even more pinched than usual. “You know, like – stealthily?” Another nudge, playful now, that she followed up by a wink. “After all – it’s not like the whole world should know our secrets… Right?”
For a second after Gru’s head came up, the sparkle was back in his eyes. Then he shrugged, and sighed, and turned back to the window. “Eet… Eet would set a bad example,” he answered, curtly. “You are gurls. You should play with – with dolls, and unicorns, and – and eat cotton candy! Not handle freeze rays –”
“Frizz rays!” Agnes interjected.
“– or frizz rays!” Gru threw up his hands. “Or to grow up theenking whatever a villain does in life ees… Well, normal. Because it ees not, you know! It’s –”
“But we don’t wanna be normal,” Agnes said, in a tiny voice.
“You… don’t?” Fumbling for the keys, Gru turned off the engine. It went with a cough and a blast of vapor, along with a yelp from what Margo guessed was an unlucky passerby. “Seeriously?”
His lilt was heavier when he was out of his depth, Margo thought, amused, and shook her head in unison with the other two. “You know,” she said, hiding a grin, “we could be the good kind of villains too, right? Like, instead of just doing fancy stuff because it’s fun, we could do fancy stuff and help people – steal from the rich, give to the poor, and stuff?”
“Yeah! Like Peter Pan!” Agnes nodded vigorously.
Gru screwed up his face. “Peter P–”
“I think she means Robin Hood,” Edith corrected. “You got the wrong Disney movie, Margo.”
“Give to the poor…” Gru muttered, slowly, to himself. He tilted his head, as if thinking of something. “Gurls – would you say we qualify as poor?”
Margo stifled a grin. “Well, I suppose we could – you know, give ourselves a little, too. Not too much, though,” she hurried to add. “Just enough to cover the expenses. We’ll still need Dr Nefario’s inventions, after all!”
“Inventions, hmm?” The corners of Gru’s lips were curling upwards, ever so slowly. “Margo – I like your idea!”
Edith closed her mouth, which had been hanging open in suspense. “So… you’re gonna try it?”
“WE – are gonna try it,” Gru declared, solemnly, not bothering to hide his amusement as they whooped. “So, gurls, we better start theenking about a plan of action. And, naturally, a target!”
“Miss Hattie is rich,” Agnes blurted. Then, at Margo’s startled glance, “She is! She has all the money from the cookies, and we never got any!” Still strapped into her seat, she swiped at Gru’s closest shoulder with one finger. “Could we help the other orphans? Please? And it’s almost Christmas, too!”
“Well…” Gru said, stretching out the ‘l’s thoughtfully. “I don’t see why not! But –” He held up a warning hand before they could start cheering again. “– at the very least, we need a strategy! Lesson one: a veellainous act is not seemply about the goal, it should make a statement! And preferably, exploit a weakness as well. So! What ees Miss Hattie’s weakness?”
Margo thought about it. So, judging by their looks of concentration, did the other two.
“Mice?” Agnes offered. “She is scared of those.”
“Ah, the classic mouse ploy!” Gru exclaimed. “Not bad, Agnes, not bad at all! Any other ideas?”
“Well, there was that time when she got stuck in the elevator…” That was Edith, with a look on her face that left little doubt she stil relished that memory.
“Good as well,” Gru nodded, approvingly. “Deeficult to plan, though. Perhaps something seempler to start with?”
“Do you remember…” Margo said, slowly, “That day we talked her into taking us into town, and – and Santa Claus was there?” She looked up at Gru and explained, “We wanted to go, but she was petrified! She said she hated Santa – had been terrified from him ever since she was a kid. She didn’t want to go anywhere near him all day. She got scarlet in the face even watching him from a distance, so…”
Gru’s smile, which had been swelling steadily, was larger than life by the time she came up for breath.
“You…” he wagged his finger at her, “… are a natural, Margo! Exploit the childhood Santa trauma! Yes! That ees exactly what we must do!”
“You think so?” Margo grinned as he beamed at her, a flush of excitement creeping across her cheeks.
“Of course! It’s a marvelous plan! All we need now ees a Santa – I’ll put the Minions on it right away!” Gru said, nodding to himself like there could be nothing simpler in the world. “Christmas ees only a few weeks off – the streets are swarming with Santas, so nobody will notice if we take one. Wonderful!” He rubbed his hands together, as if already savoring the moment. “Now –” He pursed his lips, thoughtfully. “All this talk about Christmas ees making me hungry. So, how about some deenner, gurls?”
Gru made a big show of peering at the back seat, pretending not to see their outstretched hands or hear their squeals of approval.
“No?” he mock-frowned. “No one ees hungry? No one at all?”
“Then I suggest...” Gru’s eyes twinkled, “we start practising those skills you’ll need, hmm?” He gave Edith a wink across his shoulder, then whispered, under their transfixed looks, “What do you say – we go steal ourselves a pizza, gurls?”
In a villain's life, Margo realized, there were three survival skills that mattered: patience, stealth, and imagination.
They’d still need to work on the stealth part, she thought, as peals of laughter filled the sky.