“Mom!” shouted Anastasia as she clattered up the back steps and into the kitchen after school. “Guess what Meredith Halberg gave me! Just what I’ve been wanting! And it didn’t cost anything! ”
Mrs. Krupnik put a casserole into the oven, closed the oven door, and adjusted the temperature. She turned around. “Let me think,” she said. “Chickenpox?”
Anastasia made a face. It was terrible, having a mother who always made jokes. “Ha ha, very funny,” she said. “I said it was something I’d been wanting. Anyway, I had chickenpox years ago.”
“Well,” said her mother, “I can’t think of anything else that doesn’t cost anything.”
Anastasia was so excited she was almost jumping up and down. “You’ll never guess! Wait, I’ll show you. They’re on the back porch. They’re probably getting cold. I’ll bring them in.”
“Hold it,” her mother said. She looked suspicious. “What do you mean, they’re getting cold? It’s not something alive, is it?”
But Anastasia had already gone, banging the door behind her. In a minute she was back, holding a wooden box with a wire mesh cover over it. A rustling sound came from inside the box.
Her mother retreated instantly, behind the kitchen table. “No!” she said. “It is something alive! Anastasia, absolutely not! I’ve told you and told you that I can’t stand—”
Anastasia wasn’t listening. Her mother was so boring sometimes. She undid the latch and lifted the cover of the box.
“Gerbils! ” she announced with delight.
Her mother backed away until she was against the refrigerator. She picked up a wooden spoon and held it like a weapon. “GET THOSE THINGS OUT OF MY KITCHEN IMMEDIATELY!” she bellowed.
“But, Mom, look how cute they are—”
“I SAID, OUT OF MY KITCHEN!”
Grouchily, Anastasia covered the box again. She took it to the back hall.
“Mom,” she said when she returned, “you can open your eyes now. They’re in the back hall.”
Her mother sat down and took some deep breaths.
She looked around warily. “Anastasia,” she said, “you know I can’t stand rodents.”
“Mom, they’re sweet, furry little—”
“Rodents.” Her mother shuddered.
“Well, maybe. But, Mom—”
Her mother laid the wooden spoon on the table. She took another deep breath. “Rodents make me faint,” she said. “I very nearly passed right out cold when you started taking the lid off that box.”
Anastasia sighed. There wasn’t another kid in the whole town who had a mother so idiotic. Coffee, she thought. Coffee will help. She took the coffeepot from the stove and poured her mother a cup.
“Let’s have a reasonable conversation about this subject,” she suggested, handing her mother the cup
of steaming coffee.
Her mother sipped, and shuddered one more time. “Tell me one reasonable reason for having disgusting rodents in this house,” she said grimly.
“I can tell you lots more than one. The first is that I really need a pet.”
“You have one. You’ve had Frank Goldfish since you were eight years old. I thought you loved Frank.”
“I do love Frank, but he’s boring. You can’t teach him tricks. You can’t cuddle him.”
“You want to teach tricks to—you want to cuddle those—what are they called?”
“Romeo and Juliet. I named them on the way home.”
“I don’t mean names. I meant—what did you say they are?”
“Okay, then. If you want to teach tricks to gerbils, I suggest you start by teaching them to walk on their cute, furry little hind legs. Right through the back door, down the steps, across the street, around the corner, and back to Meredith Halberg’s house.”
“Mom, that’s stupid.”
Her mother sighed. “I know it’s stupid. But, Anastasia, honestly, I have this rodent phobia.”
“I can see that. You look very pale. I’m really concerned about you, Mom. That’s why it’s important to get used to Romeo and Juliet and overcome this very serious phobia that you have.”
Her mother groaned. At least she wasn’t screaming “no” anymore. That was a good sign.
“Reason number two,” said Anastasia. “They’re going to be my science project. The Science Fair is in February, and I’m the only kid in the seventh grade who hasn’t chosen a project yet.”
“I told you to do the life cycle of the frog. I told you I’d help you make a huge poster describing the
life cycle of the frog.”
“For Pete’s sake, Mom, that’s something you do in third grade. Everybody in the entire world has already done the life cycle of the frog, in third grade. This is junior high. This guy in my class—Norman Berkowitz? He’s building a computer for his science project.”
“Norman Berkowitz’s father won the Nobel Prize in Physics last year,” Mrs. Krupnik pointed out. She got up and poured herself another cup of coffee.
“Well,” said Anastasia sulkily, “so what. Big deal. Dad was nominated for the American Book Award last year. The daughter of the person who was nominated for the American Book Award can’t turn up at the Science Fair with a dumb life cycle of the frog poster, for Pete’s sake.”
“What on earth could you do with a couple of smelly rodents?”
“They’re not smelly,” said Anastasia angrily. “I’m going to mate my gerbils, and then—”
“You’re going to what?”
“Mate my gerbils. Then I’ll study the pregnancy, and make notes, and observe their babies. I’ll learn everything to know about—”
“OVER MY DEAD BODY ARE YOU GOING TO MATE RODENTS IN THIS HOUSE.”
Whoops. She was losing ground, Anastasia knew. Time to present reason number three.
“Mom,” she said calmly, “you’re being unreasonable and irrational again. Here’s reason number three. Think about Sam.”