Read an Excerpt
On the whole, Sophie felt that the conversation about her
birthday present had gone very well.
She’d decided to talk to her father about it first. Sophie liked
talking to him about things. He could be more reasonable than
her mother. Especially when he was watching TV.
Especially when he was watching football on TV.
Sophie checked to make sure he had a soda and a bowl of
chips before she perched lightly on the arm of the couch next to
his chair and whispered, “Dad?”
She knew from experience that it was a good idea to whisper
her requests. When she whispered, he didn’t always answer
“What’d your mother say?” the way he did at other times.
“Dad?” she whispered again.
Mr. Hartley leaned his head toward her ever so slightly, keeping
his eyes fixed firmly on the screen, and said, “Hmm?”
“You know how I always ask for a dog or a cat for my birthday?”
“Hmm?”Mr. Hartley said again. Then he suddenly leaped
to his feet, shouted “Go! Go! What are you waiting for, you cowards?”
and shook his fist at the TV.
Sophie waited patiently until he settled into his chair again
and took a swig of his soda before she went on. “I don’t want one
this year,” she said. “I want a baby gorilla.”
If she absolutely had to, she was prepared to add, “It could
Be my birthday present and my Christmas present.”
Luckily, she didn’t have to make such a rash promise. Mr.
Hartley gave a little start, as if Sophie had woken him up from a
deep sleep, and cried, “What? Oh, Sophie! Wonderful! Run and
get me some more chips, there’s a good girl,” absently patting
her knee as he turned back to the TV.
Sophie hopped up to get the chips. “Wonderful!” he’d said.
Her father hardly ever said “Wonderful!” about anything. It was
as good as a “Yes” in her book.
It took a bit of practice, but she finally did it.
Hunched over the piece of paper on the floor of the family
room, holding her pencil between her big toe and the one next
to it, Sophie wrote her name in spidery letters with her foot. Her
foot kept cramping from the effort, and she had to stop and
massage it several times before she could go on.
It was a good thing gorillas had short names, like Kiki. They
were easier to write.
Sophie had fallen in love with gorillas after watching a program
on TV about a baby gorilla that was being raised by
people in a zoo. It wore diapers and drank from a bottle like a
real baby. Sophie thought it looked like a real baby, except
She had promptly taken out all the gorilla books she could
find from the school’s media center. She especially liked the one
about the woman who’d moved to Africa to live with gorillas
and had died trying to protect them.
Passionate, the book called the woman. Sophie loved that
word. Deep in her heart she knew she was passionate. She
would be willing to die to protect something she loved, too. Of
course, she didn’t want to have to do it until she was really old,
and she didn’t want it to hurt.
But she was definitely passionate.
Another book said gorillas had brains like people and were
very smart. At one zoo, a scientist named Dr. Pimm was teaching
a baby gorilla how to communicate using sign language.
Because Sophie didn’t know sign language, and because all
these animals seemed to do so many things with their feet, she
decided to teach herself how to write with her feet, so she could
communicate with her gorilla when she got it.
The idea was a little confusing, even to Sophie, but she kept
at it. Her mother wouldn’t be able to resist when Sophie told her
that gorillas didn’t scratch furniture or dig holes, and that
Sophie was going to be able to write notes to her gorilla telling it
what not to do.
She was about to dot the i in her name when two arms
wrapped themselves around her neck and a high-pitched voice
demanded, “Wide! Wide!”
“Not now, Maura,” Sophie said. She grabbed her baby
sister’s hands and tried to pry them from around her neck.
Maura promptly lifted her feet off the ground, dangling her
entire sixteen-month-old body weight down Sophie’s back.
It was Maura’s newest trick, and very effective. Sophie could
“Maura, no!” she cried, wrenching her sister’s hands apart
and dumping her on her bottom. Maura wailed and kicked her
heels against the floor.
Sophie ignored her.
It was the only thing to do when Maura had a temper
tantrum. She had them a lot these days. Mrs. Hartley said it was
because Maura was going through the “terrible twos.”
“What do you mean?” Sophie had said. “She’s only sixteen
“Well then, she’s ahead of herself,” her mother said. “Gifted.
All of my children are gifted.”
Sophie personally thought Maura was spoiled. She’d refused
To walk for the longest time because so many people in the family
were willing to carry her. When Mrs. Hartley made them
stop, Maura had started staggering around the house, pulling
magazines off tables and books from bookshelves.
Nothing was safe from her grasping hands: pots and pans,
dishes on the table, toilet paper, which she delighted in unrolling
until all that was left was the cardboard tube. All Mrs. Hartley
ever did was say “No, Maura” in a lot nicer voice than she used
with everyone else in the family.
For Sophie, the final straw had come the week before. When
Maura walked across one of Sophie’s wet paintings in her bare
feet, Mrs. Hartley had made it sound as if it were Sophie’s fault.
“For heaven’s sake, work at the kitchen table!” her mother
said as she sat Maura on the edge of the sink and held her red,
blue, and green feet under the tap.
“But I always paint lying on the floor,” Sophie protested. “I
think better when I’m on my stomach.”
“Well, you’ll just have to think sitting up until Maura’s older,”
Her mother said. “Honestly, Sophie, use your head.”
Sophie was insulted. She went straight up to her room and
drew a picture of a baby with a red face, a huge circle for a
mouth, a few teeth, and waterfalls of tears gushing out of both
eyes. She wrote DANGER: FLOOD ZONE under it and taped it to
Maura’s bedroom door.
She also decided that since it was obvious her mother wasn’t
going to teach Maura any manners, she’d have to do it herself.
Lesson number one would be patience.
“You can’t have everything you want, the minute you want
it,” Sophie said, crouching over her paper again. “I’ll give you a
piggyback ride when I’m finished.”
Maura stopped kicking the floor and started kicking
Sophie’s back instead. Sophie scooted sideways on her bottom
until she was out of Maura’s reach and, using her best teacher-like
voice, said, “I’m not going to play with you until you learn
“Patience? Who’re you kidding?” Sophie’s older sister, Nora,
had made her entrance. She tossed her backpack on the couch
and made for the family computer. “Number one, you don’t
know what patience is, Sophie,” she said scornfully. “And number
two, Maura’s still a baby.”
As she sat down, Nora frowned at the pencil between
Sophie’s toes. “What’re you doing?” she asked. Then, very
quickly, “No. Don’t tell me. I don’t want to know.”
It was too late.
Sophie was so used to Nora’s not wanting to hear what she
had to say that she took even an idle question as encouragement.
If Sophie stopped talking whenever someone in her family
wanted her to, she’d never get to explain any of her ideas.
Sophie thought her ideas were interesting.
“One of the biggest differences between primates and Man
is that primates don’t have thumbs,” she explained to her sister’s
back. “No, wait. Gorillas do have thumbs. They even have
thumbs on their feet.”
Sophie cheerfully bopped herself on the forehead a few
times and shook her head to rattle her ideas into their proper
place in her brain before she went on. “But they can’t write, so
scientists are teaching them how to speak.”
She cheated a bit by steadying the pencil with her hand as
she wrote. “Well, not speak, exactly, but make signs people can
read. Sign language, it’s called. I thought I’d try to write using
my feet to make it equal.”
Nora had stopped typing. She was sitting with her fingers
poised above the keyboard, staring at Sophie over her shoulder.
When Sophie felt her sister’s eyes on her, she looked up and
It was gratifying to think Nora found gorillas as interesting
as she did.
“When I get my baby gorilla, I mean,” Sophie told her. “For
“Do you have any idea how little sense that makes?” At thirteen,
Nora had a way of disdainfully curling her mouth whenever
Sophie talked, as if Sophie were saying something ridiculous.
“Gorillas are learning sign language, so you’re going to write with
your feet?” she said. “I mean, like, none, Sophie.”
Sophie tried to think back to what she’d actually said. She’d
been so intent on putting a little smiley face over the i in her
name that she couldn’t remember. It had sounded all right
inside her head.
“I don’t know why Mom doesn’t have you tested,” Nora
said, sighing heavily as she turned back to the keyboard. “Half
the time, the front part of what you say doesn’t have anything
to do with the end part, and the rest is so insane, none of it
“Tested for what?” Sophie said gamely. She found tests
interesting. If she didn’t always answer the questions the way
she was supposed to, it wasn’t her fault. Lots of times, there
seemed to be more than one answer.
On those horrible end-of-grade tests, Sophie didn’t do nearly
as well as she thought she should. She blamed the tests.
“I don’t know, but there’s got to be an explanation.” Nora
was typing furiously in response to the little boxes popping up
all over the computer screen like tiny message bombs. “It’s as
if you’re not dealing with a full deck or something,” she said,
“Mom said I was gifted,” said Sophie. “So there.”
“Idiot savant is more like it.”Nora typed a bit more, then suddenly
jumped as though the seat had shocked her and cried,
“Omigod!” in a pleased voice. “I don’t believe it!”
“What? One of your boyfriends again?”
“It’s none of your business!” Nora cried, plastering her
arms and upper body across the computer screen. “Stop reading
It wasn’t as if she were holding a pair of binoculars to her
eyes, Sophie thought disgustedly. Nora had been acting nuts
lately. It was all because she had become boy crazy over the past
She and her friends giggled and shrieked about boys so
much, you would have thought they’d never seen one before.
Sophie didn’t understand why Nora found them so interesting.
Especially after living with their brothers, John and Thad.
Boys were—well, boys were either boring or annoying, as
far as Sophie could see. The boys in her class walked around
flapping their arms with their hands in their armpits to make
farting noises. They read joke books, too, then told dumb jokes
that nobody laughed at except other boys.
“I don’t see why you make such a big deal about boys,”
Sophie said. “They’re exactly the same as girls. You’re being sexist.”
Sexist was a new word some of the girls in Sophie’s class
were using. It meant someone who thought boys were better
than girls. The girls said boys were sexist. And here was Nora
acting sexist herself.
“Right, Sophie. Exactly the same,” Nora said. “That shows
How much you know, you baby.”
Sophie was about to defend herself when Maura grabbed a
fistful of Sophie’s hair and tried to pull herself to her feet.
Sophie yelped and yanked her hair out of her sister’s hands,
sending Maura onto her bottom again. At that second, their
mother appeared in the doorway.
It was Thursday, which meant Mrs. Hartley had started
work at 7:30 in the morning, picked Maura up at daycare at 4:00
and dropped her at home, and then gone to pick up John at his
tae kwon do class at 4:45. She was always tired by the time she
got home on Thursdays.
“Oh, for heaven’s sake, Sophie,” her mother said. She
snatched Maura up before she could utter her first scream and
took a quick sniff of Maura’s diaper. “You’re getting too old to
fight with a two-year-old.”
“She pulled my hair,” Sophie said, rubbing the back of her
“That’s because you dig in.”Her mother glanced at the pencil
between Sophie’s toes as she turned to leave. “What on earth
are you doing?”
“Communicating with apes,” Nora told her.
“That, I can believe,” said Mrs. Hartley.