By Jo Ann Beard
Hardcover, 304 pages
Little, Brown and Company
List Price: $23.99
We can't believe the house is on fire. It's so embarrassing first of all, and so dangerous second of all. Also, we're supposed to be in charge here, so there's a sense of somebody not doing their job.
"I told you to go up there and see what they were doing," Felicia says.
"I told you to go up there," I reply.
We've divided the kids up, three each, and two of hers were upstairs playing with matches while the third, and all of mine, were secured in the backyard.
The smoke isn't too bad at this point; basically it smells like a campfire. We still can't find where it's coming from, although the third- floor bathroom is a pretty safe bet, if we listen to Renee, who is accusing Derek of setting a toilet paper fire in a wicker wastebasket.
There is no sign of Derek anywhere; he set the fire and moved on to the next thing. Renee, loitering in the hallway, had played Barbie until the last possible moment and then gave up when the smoke began swirling, calling out, "Fire!" in an annoyed voice.
"He said if I told, he'd murder me," she trilled, loping down the stairs and out, eluding us.
We've been babysitting for the Kozaks all summer, five days a week, eight hours a day; six kids — Derek, Renee, Stewart, Wanda, Dale, Miles — and various other, easier-to-control creatures: a tarantula, a python, a rat snake, some white mice, and an elderly German shepherd with bad hips who lies in the dirt next to the doghouse all day, licking his stomach. We each get seventy five cents per hour, which doesn't sound like enough when we're here but blooms into an incredible bounty on the weekends, when we're lying around trying to decide how to spend it. Almost a dollar an hour, accumulating slowly and inexorably, in a revolving series of gagging diaper changes, nose wipings, placing of buzzing flies in the tarantula's terrarium, assembly- line construction of baloney- cheese- mayonnaise sandwiches, folding of warm laundry, chipping of egg crust off the vinyl tablecloth, benevolent dispensing of Sno-Kone dimes, helpless shouting, appalling threats, and perusal of their porn library.
We are fourteen, only three years older than Derek, who is the oldest of the Kozak children. Derek isn't much work because he disappears for most of each day, showing up only when the parents are due back home, which is fine with us. He won't mind, he cusses, and he once threw a handful of worms at us after a rainstorm. The other five kids range in age from one and a half to nine; some in fact claim to be the same age, although none of them look even vaguely alike. We can't figure it out, but then again, we don't try to.
* * *
"Man, are we in for it," Felicia says, panting.
We're evacuating the pets. She's struggling with the smaller snake aquarium, which houses, along with the python, the python's furniture — a bent log, a plastic bowl, and a rock for the mice to hide behind. The snake, a young albino, is gently probing its ivory nose at the jumbo box of ice cream sandwiches we've put on top to hold the wire mesh lid in place.
I've got the tarantula cage under one arm and all seven white mice, which are riding in a pillowcase. Once outside, I go through the gate, past the semicollapsed garage into the alley to where the sticker bushes are, set the pillowcase down, and give it a poke. The mice nose their way out and disappear into the bramble.
"The mice just escaped," I announce to the kids as I come back through the gate.
"Wanda ate gum off the fence," Dale reports.
Wanda is hanging upside down from the rusty jungle gym.
She opens her mouth and something purple lands in the dirt.
"Dale stole money," she calls out.
"Shut up and stay there," I tell them.
"Our mom said if you told us to shut up one more time, she'd shut you up for good," Renee informs me. This has the unmistakable ring of truth to it — her mother has a thatch of black hair that she sets on hot curlers every morning, and once when she was taking out the curlers, she said, "Look," and when I looked she had popped out her false tooth and was leering like a jack-o'-lantern.
So far, no smoke is visible outdoors, but when we go back inside, the hallway is swirling, and it stinks quite a bit, more like a toilet paper fire now than a campfire. It takes both of us to handle the rat snake aquarium; we're staggering, trying not to breathe, but we both hate the rat snake and are scared it will get loose, so we stop and rescue some food to pile on top — a box of cereal and some fl at packages of cheese — and then lug it toward the door.
The snake, agitated, puts his head under a corner of the lid, and about four inches of him leaks out, right near my hand. I start screaming and then Felicia sees him undulating there and starts screaming too. For a moment, we revolve in panicked circles, holding the aquarium between us and screaming. The sound is so loud and frightening in the narrow, smogged hallway that we calm down and use a package of cheese to direct him back inside where he belongs.
"Now what are we supposed to do?" Felicia asks, once we're outside.
The children, clustered by their swing set, stare over our heads. Behind us, like a dragon, their house has begun to exhale long tendrils of smoke.
Excerpted from In Zanesville by Jo Ann Beard. Copyright 2011 by Jo Ann Beard. Excerpted by permission of Little, Brown and Company. All rights reserved.