Dragons and Bees
FRIDAYS AT MY SCHOOL OFTEN BEGIN WITH DISASTER. We’re having this one out on the bleachers instead of in the auditorium and I’m sitting with Emily, of course. I start telling her how Creepy Carly the Creeperton almost killed me and my brother driving us to school, but Emily’s barely listening.
“Hey!” I say. “I’m complaining here!”
And Emily says, “I noticed that.”
“Well, where are all your sympathetic grunts and pity sounds?” I ask.
I give her a nudge and say, “What’s wrong? You sick?”
Em shrugs again, and sighs. She’s not usually a sigher.
“I promised I wouldn’t tell anyone,” she says.
“What aren’t you supposed to... Wait, I’m not anyone!” I say.
Emily bends over and puts her face in her hands.
“Who did you promise?” I ask.
“Nora,” Emily says from under her hands.
“Your cousin Nora?”
“She’s pregnant?” That’s a joke. Nora is only twelve and not the pregnant- at- twelve type.
Emily shakes her half- hidden head.
“She bludgeoned someone to death?”
Emily snorts. Nora is a teeny, tiny, bird- boned little thing.
“She’s in jail? Caught the plague? Won the lottery? Got a puppy? Pierced her eyeball? Am I getting warm?”
Emily looks up. “No.”
“Just tell me then. The assembly’s going to start any second!”
Emily looks around as if there might be spies. We’re jammed in on all sides by everyone, but I guess she decides it’s safe because she whispers, “Nora and her parents are moving in with us.”
“Wow! That will be fun!” I say, and I mean it. Emily doesn’t have any brothers or sisters and I think two families living together would be a blast... Even if Nora is a little bit whiny and the tiniest bit overly serious.
“But Jacki, they’re moving in because they lost their house,” Em explains, keeping her voice low.
“Why don’t they just look on their old street?” I ask. “Between their neighbors? I bet it’s still there.”
Emily rolls her eyes.
Principal Nicholson blows into the microphone and says, “All rise for the Pledge.”
We stand. “I pledge allegiance to the . . .”
I’ve totally heard of losing houses.
Just a few days ago, I asked my mom why there were suddenly For Sale signs all over the place. She said people couldn’t afford to stay in their houses anymore.
I was so disappointed by this explanation.
“Or that’s just the cover story,” I said. “And the truth is there’s been a horrendous mutating toxic spill that the government is hushing up so we won’t all panic and go shrieking into the hills!”
“Sorry, Sweetie Pie,” Mom said, “but I’m pretty sure it’s just an economic thing.”
“. . . with liberty and justice for all.” We sit.
I wonder why Nora swore Emily to silent secrecy about it, though. I can see how it would be upsetting to lose your house, but secrecy goes with something truly embarrassing or shamefully humiliating, right? I mean it’s not like Nora’s parents danced naked at her All School Assembly or anything.
Principal Nicholson seems to be done announcing things. She introduces today’s disaster guest, a traf.c safety guy. Last week we had a lockdown drill lady talking about school shooters. Before that, it was the drug police and their dope snif.ng dog.
Except for the dog, who was adorable, our Friday guests are always shaking their .ngers and warning us about how terrible the world is. I think we should just have all of them here on the same day and get it over with.
Yes! A Misery Marathon!
The pep squad could make signs, “Welcome Dudes of Gloom!” The kindergarten would sing a cute little song of grim despair. The elementary would put on adorable disaster skits between each lecture. First grade, catastrophic poisoning. Second grade, brush .re. How sweet they’d look in their “engulfed in .ames” costumes! Stop! Drop! Roll!
Anyway, at least we’re not in class, and there’s a teeny bit of a breeze. Emily is drawing on my arm and the pen tickles.
We sit according to grade, so my little (.fteen months younger, but four inches taller than me) brother Mitch is below me with his class, and my sister Brooke is above. I turn around to .nd her, but something furry catches my eye.
Look! Cupped in Lauren’s hand is a tiny brown and white hamster! He’s washing his incredibly cute face with his teeny pink hands.
“Shhhh!” Lauren hisses, and the hamster disappears. “Don’t tell anyone!”
“No, wait!” I cry. “I won’t tell a soul! Never! Not a peep! I swear!”
But Lauren doesn’t bring the hamster back out. Instead she leans forward and whispers, “His name is Chubbs. He came to school in my pocket.”
I start to laugh, but she shushes me again.
“Is your pocket full of hamster poop?” I ask very, very quietly.
“Worth it!” she says. Then she sits back and looks past me as if there’s no tiny secret hamster stowed away in her pocket... as if she’s suddenly interested in the safety guy who for some reason calls bike helmets “brain buckets.”
I want a hamster. I need one. Imagine how wonderful the school day would be with a hamster curled up in my pocket!
I bet he’s super soft. I’d let him run around on my desk in French. Share my lunch.
Maybe if I’m really good, and if I nag relentlessly and pass math and French, and am nice to Carly, and practice piano until my .ngers bleed, my mom will let me get a tiny face-washing hamster of my own.
I turn around to see if maybe Chubbs is out again, but he isn’t. There’s Brooke, though, in the tippy top row with the other seniors. My beautiful sister. She glows.
How will I stand it next year when it’ll just be me and Mitch on these bleachers? The thought makes me sad to the bone.
I look down. Oh! Emily got a little carried away. My entire left arm is a big ugly dinosaur whose toenails de.nitely need cutting, and whose tail is very strangely shaped and horrid looking.
“Nice,” I say.
“I have a piano recital tomorrow morning, though.”
Emily un- smiles.
“Think it’ll wash off by then?”
Em shrugs. “Maybe. Plus you could use like, I don’t know, sandpaper or something.”
Ms. Kaufman turns around and points her .erce index .nger at us.
“No matter,” I whisper to Emily, “Mr. Rodriguez is probably going to beat me to a bloody stump when he .nds out I forgot my homework again. Your dinosaur will blend with the bruises.”
“It’s not a dinosaur.”
“Um . . . a dragon?” I ask.
“Obviously!” Emily fake pouts. “Is it or is it not breathing .re?”
“I thought it was eating a . . . well... maybe a blanket?”
Ms. Kaufman turns around again to hiss, “Shhhh! Girls!”
*** After school I’ve got four minutes to get to track, but .rst I have to .nd Emily because Coach Keefer said if I show up at one more practice without socks she’s going to make me scrub the locker room. There’s Em! “But Jacki,” she says, “I’ve been sweating in these socks all day!” “That’s OK. Just hurry!” “Ee www!” she says, wrinkling her nose. She sits down on the .oor to untie her shoes. “You know, if you’d told me at lunch, I could have taken them off then, and...” “It’ll be .ne,” I say. “You’re a peach, a doll, my hero.” “I know,” Emily says, peeling off her socks, and wiggling her toes. “Here ya go!” She holds them up to me by the tips of her .ngers. “Later!” I call, and take off for the locker room. “Gator,” she replies, as she has since kindergarten. I’m holding Emily’s socks under the hand dryer when I remember that permission slips are absolutely, positively due today for something. The away meets, maybe? Oops. So even with socks, Coach Keefer is going to kill me. Worse, she’s going to make me run stairs again. That’s her favorite torture. What am I doing in track anyway? I hate everything about
it. Well, I like running, zoom, just .at out, with the wind in my face. And I love running with other people, like a herd of caribou kicking up our hooves.
But racing against my fellow caribou ruins everything. Then I’m a lone creature being chased by hungry lions! Running in terror instead of running to celebrate the joy of life with my pals.
I tried to explain that to Coach Keefer once and she curled her lip and sneered, “My, aren’t you the little nature poet,” which I guess was a deeply vile insult from her.
But while I’m running stairs at the far end of the .eld, panting and wheezing and feeling this close to puking, I wipe the sweat out of my eyes and see a mamma deer and her two babies step out from between some trees and walk right across the parking lot! Wow! One of the babies stops to look around, and I wave, “Hi, Bambi!”
A hamster on the bleachers and a family of deer in the parking lot in the middle of Los Angeles? That’s got to be a sign, right?
*** You’d think I’d know by now not to tell Carly anything, but while we’re waiting for my brother to get out of baseball practice, I mention that I’ve decided to be a veterinarian. Carly practically sprays her diet soda all over the dashboard. “Ha!” she shrieks, all sarcastic, “I’d like to see that!” “Well good, because you will,” I huff. “You know, there’s a whole lot of math and science in being a vet,” Carly says in her know- it- all tone. “I’ve heard that it’s harder to get into vet school than med school.”
“So, you’re like barely passing remedial, ninth grade, private school math, where they hold your hand and baby you through! What are you going to do when you get to college, and classes are actually hard, and they expect you to work?”
I fold my arms in a knot and clamp my mouth shut so I won’t blurt out what I think of her because last time I did that, Carly whipped out her phone and immediately tattled to my mom, who grounded me for a week for being rude to the help.
“And you know, vets have to kill as many animals as they save,” Carly says. “Like, if some chick comes in and goes, I’m allergic to my kitty, kill him, you’ve got to. You can’t say, no.”
Mitch drops into the backseat. “I’m starved,” he announces. Mitch is always starving. A family of twelve could live for a year off what my brother eats for lunch.
But I don’t say a word because I’m afraid if I crack my lips even the tiniest sliver, ghastly anti- Carly monsters and insults will squeeze out and get me in trouble.
“What’s with her?” Mitch asks, jabbing his thumb at me.
“She’s sulking because I don’t think she could be a vet,” Carly says, practically backing into the janitor’s truck.
“Vet?” Mitch asks. He’s getting out his iPod which means in a half second I’ll basically be alone with Creep- o Carly again. But .rst Mitch says, “Yesterday you said you wanted to be a beekeeper. Have a honey farm.”
True, the bee guy at our house yesterday did have a cool job, dressed in his space suit with the mask and gloves. Even the ankles of his pants were taped closed. And the bees were amazing! Getting angrier and wilder the more he messed with the swarming, squirmy, drippy, gooey honeycombs he kept pulling out of the .lter box behind our pool.
But then he stuck the buzzy slabs in the back of his Bye Bye Bees! truck, and started .irting with Crudball Carly. Gross!
He was all Fearless, He- man, Bee- man to the rescue. Saying how great he was for not killing the bees, but moving them, queen and all, to a safe place to pollinate the world’s fruits and vegetables, and save the world from hunger and famine.
“All in a day’s work, ma’am,” he said... although maybe not in those exact words.
Then Carly, laying her fake French- Dutch- Texan- Brooklyn accent on thick, told him she was my “nanny.” Ew. Her whole “nanny” routine is beyond lame. She’s just a twerp from the valley, going to Santa Monica Community College in s-l- o-w motion and driving us around during the week. That is not a nanny.
And you’ll notice the entire nanny bit totally disappears when no bee- man or grownups are watching. Then she’s just, “Shut up, can’t you see I’m watching Project Runway?”
“Your sister just thought the bee catcher guy was hot,” Carly tells Mitch as she rolls through a stop sign. I guess she doesn’t know he’s already blasting his brains out with music. Next, she wiggles her .nger toward me, going, “Buzz Buzz.”
I swat her hand away from my face.
“You thought he wazzzzz cute. Right, Jacki?”
I don’t say, “WRONG!” I don’t say anything. But Carly is right about one thing: Forget being a vet. I should just become a serial killer, starting right now with her!
“Your Mom’s working late again and Brooke is at ballet,” Carly says, “so how about pizza at The Capri?”
I LOVE the Capri. So, OK, maybe I’ll let her live till after dinner.
*** I’m in bed when Mom gets home and comes into my room. She tiptoes toward me, peering through the darkness to see if I’m awake. She can’t tell that I’m looking back at her, and I’m sooo tempted to jump up and say BOO! But as hilarious as that seems, I .gure that if I scare the bejeebies out of her and she has a massive heart attack and dies before she hits the ground, it won’t be that funny. So I lay still and let her creep up squinting. Then I whisper real quietly, in a tiny voice that wouldn’t startle a baby mouse, “Hi, Mom.” She answers, “Hi, Sweetie Pie,” and sits at the edge of my bed. “What time is it?” I ask. Mom straightens my blanket and says, “Late. Long, long day.” She sounds beat, not her usual perky, Get- the- Job- Done self. I skootch over and pat the bed next to me. She lays down with a sigh. It’s cozy and I may have fallen back to sleep a tiny bit, when Mom says, “Feel ready for the big day?” “Big day?” I ask. “Your recital tomorrow,” she answers. Oh. That. It’s quiet a second, then Mom says, “I wish I could be there.” “What?” I ask sleepily. “I know you’ll do great,” she answers.
“Wait. You’re not coming to my recital?”
“I’d love to, Sweetie Pie, but I can’t get away. There’s a huge meeting tomorrow morning. I should be up preparing for it now, but I’m so tired. I just want to lie here for two more seconds . . .”
“You’re not coming to my recital?” I ask again, a bit louder.
“I can’t. I’m sorry.”
“Well, if you’re not going, neither am I! I hate recital- ing, I hate the piano, and the piano hates me!” I’m sitting up now. “There’s no way I’m going if you’re not! What’s the point?”
“Please, Jacki,” Mom begs. “Can we not have this scene right now? I’m exhausted.”
I glare down at her for a while, but then my brain clicks into a happy YES! I slide back down under the blanket and snuggle in next to her.
“No scene,” I say. “We just won’t go.”
Mom says something that sounds like “Gnorth,” followed by a little snore. And that is that.
*** But, in the morning, I wake alone in bed. I stumble out of my room to look for my mom, and .nd her downstairs standing at the kitchen counter in one of her blue suits, hair and makeup done, shoes on, drinking coffee, and making notes on a big yellow pad. “Mom?” “Good morning!” she says. “Your father is picking you up between ten and a quarter after. If he hasn’t shown up by ten ten give him a call. I hope he wears something decent. Maybe call and remind him to dress nicely.”
“You better hop in the shower and start getting ready,” Mom says. “Wear the red skirt with the red and blue top, but have Carly give it a touch- up with the iron. She should be here shortly.”
Mom checks her watch. “Oh!” She takes one more gulp of coffee, puts her cup in the sink, grabs her briefcase and heaps of papers, and leans toward me for an air kiss, saying, “I’m gonna be late!”
“WHAT?” I yell. “You promised!”
“Jacki . . .” she says, with a little laugh, and tries to sidestep me.
But I block the door, straddling the door jamb.
“Last night we agreed that if you don’t have to go to my recital, then I don’t either! It’s both of us or neither! So don’t go telling me to wear my stupid red skirt and red and blue top!” I haven’t thrown a tantrum in a while, and I feel a little rusty.
“Jacki, I’m going to be late! I. Do. Not. Have. Time. For. This,” she says, putting each word out on its own.
“Then. You. Should. Not. Have. Had. Kids!” I say, imitating her.
Oops. That was going too far. Mom freezes, looks at me all weird, and then I’m being hugged and squished. Mom’s words are blurry but she seems to be saying that I’m right, nothing is more important than my recital and she wouldn’t miss it for the world.
Then she’s on the phone, telling her boss that she is terribly sorry but she just can’t possibly make it to the meeting, and she knows what a rough spot that leaves him in but... and on like that.
Wait. What just happened? How did this so totally back.re? I just wanted to get out of my recital. But instead of getting out, it looks like I’ve dragged Mom in! And from the sound of her groveling on the phone, I even got her in trouble at work. That’s not what I meant to do!
I wave my arms and mouth the words, “No. It’s OK! You can GO!” But Mom gives me a wobbly little smile and keeps apologizing to her boss.
I shake my head frantically, No! NO! NO!
Mom just blows me a kiss.
Guess I better start getting ready . . . not in the sleeveless red and blue top, because I have to cover Emily’s blanket- eating dragon.
I wish I’d practiced that stupid piano piece.
Excerpted from The No So Great Depression by Amy Goldman Koss.
Copyright © 2010 by Amy Goldman Koss.
Published in May 2010 by Roaring Brook Press.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.