Tracy Barnett glanced at her watch. The jailbird was already a half hour late. Big surprise. His first day on the job, his chance to get started right, and he didn't bother to show up on time.
She set her hand inside a wire cage, and a huge Norway rat waddled up her arm and onto her shoulder. She shivered when his cold nose nuzzled her neck. Then she felt his teeth scrape against her skin.
"Cut it out, Jose," she said. He was after the gold clasp on her necklace again. She eased her fingers under his fat body and lifted him into the air. Reaching up with her other hand, she scratched the rat's cheeks until his mouth opened and the necklace came free. She set him back in his cage, then unfastened her necklace and stuck it in the pocket of her jeans.
Jose. What kind of name was that for a Norway rat? But at the Jefferson Science Center, if you adopted a pet (that is, if you put up the money for the animal's food), you could name it anything you wanted.
Well, almost anything. Millie, the Center director, had refused to let a boy name a guinea pig Snothead. But they had a Dribblepuss. And a hamster named Sir Wetzalot. And a rat, Mr. Vinson, named after the middle school principal.
Tracy decided that they should name an animal Kevin -- after the jailbird. But they didn't have a skunk or a weasel. And all the snakes were too nice.
Luke, Tracy's older brother, rapped on the door of the Animal Room. He put his face up to the glass and shouted, "Is Mort loose?" Rain was beating down on the roof, but Tracy had forgotten how loud it was until Luke had to yell over it.
Tracy pointed toward the corner. "Up there." Mort was a screech owl they had rescued from the roadside the summer before. His broken wing had mended, but he had suffered brain damage and couldn't be released into the wild. When things were quiet, Tracy let him fly around the room -- although he really didn't fly. He fluttered and hopped from one perch to another.
Luke pushed the door open a few inches and eased into the room. Tall and thin, always smiling, he got along with everybody -- except Tracy. He grinned at her and asked, "You still mad?"
Tracy picked up Jose and set him on her shoulder. "Me? Mad? Just because my clod of a brother called me a whiny old bag?"
"I did not. I said you better watch out or you'll grow up to be a whiny old bag."
Tracy stepped back and held up her hands. "Oh, that makes me feel so much better."
"I need a feather for the microscope exhibit," Luke said.
"That's not all you need." Tracy began sweeping wood shavings into a cardboard box. "Get one out of Mort's cage. I haven't cleaned it yet."
"You're not supposed to clean those cages."
"Funny thing," Tracy said, dipping a rag into the bucket of bleach solution. "These cages don't clean themselves. And we're having a little trouble getting the animals potty trained."
"You know what I mean," Luke said. "Kevin's supposed to do those."
"Yeah. And Kevin was supposed to be here a half hour ago too."
"He'll be here. It's part of the contract he signed."
"Yeah, yeah, I know the drill. If he doesn't show up, he gets put back in juvie hall. So he'll drag in about noon with some lame excuse. He knows how to work the system."
Luke reached into the owl's cage and picked up two tiny feathers. "He may have had trouble getting a ride."
"What's the problem?" Tracy said. "He can just steal another car."
Luke waved her away. "Save him some work to do. He needs to learn how to do things." He held the feathers up to the light. "These'll work."
Tracy snorted. "Operation Start Over -- that has to be the dumbest idea I ever heard of."
"What's the problem? You've been whining for months about needing help. So now you have some."
"Yeah, just what we need -- a dumb jailbird who doesn't even like animals."
"He's not dumb," Luke said. "And you don't have to be a rocket scientist to clean cages."
"Watch it," Tracy said.
Luke reached for the doorknob. "I know it's never happened in your whole life, but you might turn out to be wrong about him."
"Right," Tracy said. "But don't leave your car keys sitting around, okay?"
Luke smiled and shook his head. "You heard what Millie said -- think of Kevin as another rescue project."
"Oh, right. And we'll change his whole life. And when he gets to be President of the United States, he'll say, 'I owe everything to Operation Start Over and those wonderful people at the Jefferson Science Center.'"
Luke looked up at the owl, then pulled open the door. "Great attitude, Sis." Then he was gone.
Tracy sighed. Luke was right -- in a way. The Science Center, part of the town's museum group, was always short of money and help. Student volunteers like Luke and Tracy kept the place going, but most volunteers didn't last long. After a few sessions of cleaning cages, they drifted away.
The Center especially needed help during the winter months. Having somebody like Kevin show up every Saturday would have been great -- if he hadn't been a jailbird with a rotten attitude.
After Tracy cleaned four cages, she slipped a leather glove on her right hand and reached out to Mort. She nudged the owl's chest, and he stepped up onto the glove. His talons tightened on her finger. She carried him to the side window and leaned against the sill while she stroked his head. The rain was coming down in sheets. It had been doing that for the past ten days.
Just a few miles north of there, the river was out of its banks and people's houses were underwater. And even in this town, which was built on high ground, lots of streets were flooded. The Center's parking lot was under several inches of water.
With this weather, there wouldn't be many visitors today. That was fine with Tracy. She liked the Center better when it was closed. Luke loved to set up new displays and put on shows. Tracy just liked the animals. And the quiet.
Things were simple here. The animals didn't ask for much. Food, warmth, a little attention. They didn't care what you looked like or whether you wore the right clothes or said the right things. And you didn't have to wonder if they were talking behind your back.
Up until now, whenever she was sick of her school and all the stupid things there, she could escape here to the Center. Just her and the animals.
But now things had changed. Kevin Marsh, as part of Operation Start Over, would be doing his public service work here.
When he came by last Saturday, she thought he might be all right. He wasn't bad-looking, and he had a great smile -- when he smiled. Best of all, unlike ninety-eight percent of the boys in the freshman class, he was taller than she was. Not by much. But he was taller.
He was friendly at first, especially after he found out she was Luke's sister. But when she tried to show him around, he acted like she was from some other planet: "Hey, give me a break. I don't care about that stuff -- who started the place and all that. I'm slave labor. Just tell me what I'm supposed to do, and I'll do it."
"Don't you want to look around?" she asked him.
He shook his head. "I've seen enough. This is better than juvie hall, and that's my other choice." He looked at her and laughed. "So lucky you -- you get me for a helper."
"I must be living right," she said.
"Don't blame me," he told her. "This is the judge's bright idea."
And Luke thought Tracy had an attitude problem.
At school on Monday, Kevin had come up to her in the main hallway and put his arm around her and said, "Hey, Tracy, how's every little thing?" He wasn't being friendly. He was trying to embarrass her. And he'd done a good job of it. Fifty people around, and the way he yelled, all fifty ended up looking right at her. She'd stepped back to get away, and he'd laughed and said, "That's okay. I'll give you an easier question next time."
Then he'd laughed again and yelled out, "See you Saturday. We'll have some wild, crazy times down at the Jefferson Center."
Tracy shook her head. That's the way things went for her. Her friend Melissa was always talking about the perfect start for the day -- to have a good-looking guy come up, put his arm around you, and whisper something gooshy in your ear. So when it finally happened to Tracy, she got a loudmouthed jailbird making fun of her.
Well, maybe he wouldn't show up. That was second best. The best was for him to get caught stealing another car and end up in jail and out of her life.
Tracy heard car doors slam. She looked out to see Mrs. Wisecarver and her brats coming up the sidewalk, wearing yellow slickers and carrying umbrellas. The Center wasn't open yet, but Millie would let them in. Mrs. Wisecarver was always good for a donation, and Millie didn't mind bending the rules to keep the donors happy.
By the time Tracy put Mort back in his cage, the Wisecarver kids were banging on the Animal Room Door and yelling, "Little pig, little pig, let me come in."
It was almost ten when Tracy spotted Kevin stomping through the puddles in the driveway. His wet hair was hanging in his face, and water was pouring off the denim jacket he always wore -- probably the first time it had ever been washed.
"Here comes the jailbird," Tracy called to Luke.
"I told you he'd come," Luke said.
"An hour and a half late, and I'll bet he doesn't even say he's sorry."
"Lighten up," Luke said. "Give the poor guy a chance."
"You work with him then. If you can think of something simple enough for him to do. I've already done most of his work."
"I told you to leave it."
"We'll start getting visitors any minute. Somebody had to get the place ready."
Kevin pulled open the front door and walked through. His shoes made a squishing sound with each step.
"Hi, Kevin," Luke called out.
Kevin raised his hand a few inches and headed for the rest room, leaving a trail of water on the floor.
"Nice of you to stop by," Tracy said. "If there's anything we can do to make your visit more pleasant, be sure and let us know."
"Shut up," Luke whispered. "He can hear you."
"Oh, that'd be too bad. We wouldn't want to hurt his feelings."
Luke shook his head. "You're practicing to be an old bag again."
"Oh, fine. Mr. Humanity. As long as you're all full of love and understanding, why don't you go mop the floor where he slopped it up?"
Copyright © 20002 by P.J. Peterson
- Aladdin |
- 128 pages |
- ISBN 9781439137000 |
- September 2008 |
- Grades 3 - 7