Read an Excerpt
Please. Teagan Wylltson’s fingers curled in American Sign Language as she spoke. Trade sweater for banana? She leaned over the fence around the chimp enclosure. Come on, Cindy, she coaxed. Be a good girl. Trade.
Cindy bared her fangs in a grimace, ignoring the ripe banana Teagan offered. She draped the pink cashmere over her shoulders and did the ape equivalent of a runway strut all the way to the bamboo along the back wall, turning to glare at Teagan before she disappeared into the greenery.
“Ms. Wylltson doesn’t appear to be getting anywhere, Dr. Max,” Ms. Hahn, the head of the youth docents, said.
“Tea can handle it.” Dr. Max wiped his balding dome with a handkerchief.
“You should ask Cindy to give it back, Max,” Ms. Hahn said. “The chimp listens to you.”
“She used to.” Dr. Max shook his head. “Lately she just throws things every time I come in sight.”
“How did she get your sweater, young lady?” Ms. Hahn’s eyes narrowed. “That could be dangerous for the animal!”
“I left it on the railing,” Teagan said. “Cindy used a stick to fish it into her enclosure.”
“And you didn’t notice that this was happening, Max?”
“Dr. Max wasn’t here.”
Ms. Hahn’s pencil-thin eyebrows rose. “The girl was here unsupervised?” She sniffed. “That is against regulations. Youth never work with the animals unsupervised!”
“Teagan’s not a youth-docent volunteer,” Dr. Max said. “She is an employee.”
“A sixteen-year-old employee.” Ms. Hahn’s voice was growing louder. “ Youth-worker rules still apply.”
“Teagan is very responsible, and she was never in the cage with Cindy,” Dr. Max said calmly. “Really, Darleen, you’re not helping here. Cindy is just like a child. She’ll pick up the tension in our voices if we argue.”
Teagan sneezed. She wished Ms. Hahn would find somewhere else to be. She wished she’d taken her Benadryl during her break. And she wished Cindy would just give the sweater back so she could head to the animal clinic.
The bamboo shook where Cindy had disappeared. Teagan held the banana to her nose and pretended to sniff.
“Smells good.” The words came out sounding like thmells dwood. Her nose was so plugged up she couldn’t smell the Primate Research House, much less the ripe banana she was peeling.
The bushes at the back of the enclosure shook harder.
“Cindy,” Dr. Max coaxed, “come out and talk to Teagan.”
Cindy came out of the bushes, the sweater wadded into a ball. She held it over her head like a trophy, then put it down and started signing madly.
“Bad girl, bad girl,” Teagan translated.
“Cindy’s a good girl,” Dr. Max said as he signed. “Give Tea’s sweater back. Say sorry.”
Teagan met Cindy’s icy glare. The chimp didn’t look one bit sorry. In fact, she looked just like . . . Teagan glanced at Ms. Hahn. It couldn’t be. Could it?
Bad boy, Teagan signed.
Cindy bared her fangs.
Ugly boy, Teagan signed, then gave Dr. Max a push.
“Hey,” Ms. Hahn said. “What do you think you are doing?”
Cindy screamed and threw the wadded-up sweater at Teagan, who caught it with one hand.
“What . . . how did you do that?” Ms. Hahn demanded.
“Cindy wasn’t saying that she was a bad girl.” Teagan shoved the sweater into her backpack. “She was telling Dr. Max that I was a bad girl.”
“Cindy’s got a crush on Dr. Max. She wants him to stay away from me.” Teagan didn’t mean to look directly at Ms. Hahn when she said it. It was just so obvious. “Common primate behavior.”
“Perceptive!” Dr. Max said. “Didn’t I tell you she was perceptive, Darleen? This girl has a future ahead of her as a vet, or an animal behaviorist. She’s going to get lots of scholarship offers out of her work here. ‘Common primate behavior.’ Of course, of course.” He chuckled and turned mildly pink. “I should have known that. I just didn’t consider myself—”
“It’s the lab coat,” Teagan said. “Very hot.”
Ms. Hahn’s glare made Cindy’s seem warm and friendly.
“I have to clean the cages in the lab and feed the tiddlywinks,” Teagan said before Ms. Hahn could open her mouth. “Gotta run! See you on Saturday.”
Teagan took a deep breath—through her mouth, since her nose was too stuffy—as soon as she was outside. She couldn’t help feeling sad at the zoo. The animals here would never live the way they were meant to live. The primate house was the worst, because the apes were so much like people. Especially Cindy, with her acquired language.
Teagan had learned ASL in middle school so she could teach a preschool signing class at the community center. Community service had seemed like a good idea for her college applications, but Dr. Max had offered her something even better.
He’d been one of the judges of the sophomore science fair. He’d seen her signing to her little brother and offered her a part-time job with his primate research team, socializing with Cindy. Because her science fair project had been on urban wildlife rescue, Dr. Max had agreed to work some clinic time into her schedule as well. If the chimp language program helped convince people that apes should have some basic rights, Teagan was happy to help. But her real love was the clinic. She worked for Dr. Max every Thursday after school, all day Saturday, and half a day on Sunday. As soon as summer vacation started, her position would be full-time, and she’d get to spend four hours a day in the clinic.
She dashed across the zoo grounds, punched the security code into the keypad at the clinic door, and waited for it to hiss open.
“Hey.” Agnes, the vet tech, was sitting at the office desk when Teagan came in. “Look at this.”
Teagan leaned over to look at the computer screen. It was a cryptozoology site, of course. Agnes’s hobby was debunking pseudo-scientists who thought they had pictures of everything from Bigfoot to the Loch Ness Monster. The screen showed a flat, mummified creature with what appeared to be a grimacing face. The caption read, “Alien body found in New Mexico?!”
“What is it?” Teagan asked.
“It’s a dead sea skate. What it’s doing in the middle of the desert I don’t know. Somebody must have brought it home from vacation and thrown it out with the trash.”
“So you told them?”
“Of course I did. More science, less ignorance.”
Teagan left Agnes to her debunking and went to feed her patients in the next room. She put a fresh lettuce leaf into Methuselah’s cage, and the tortoise winked a red eye at her. He’d been someone’s pet until he wandered into the street. She ran her finger along the mended crack in his shell. Shells didn’t heal, of course, but the superglue she’d used to put him back together would probably last his lifetime. Now all he needed was a new home—one that could keep him out of traffic.
Teagan heated some goat’s milk in the microwave, mixed it in a bowl with canned puppy food, then tapped on the nest box behind Dr. Max’s desk.
“Tiddlywinks, wake up,” she whispered. The mass of prickles and paws in the middle of the nest started moving, sorting itself into five baby hedgehogs. Dr. Max had not been hopeful when they were orphaned at two days old, still so young that their prickles were white. He’d said that African hedgehogs were next to impossible to hand raise, but Teagan hadn’t lost even one of the babies. For the first two weeks, she’d carried them with her in a basket night and day, feeding them every two hours. It would have been easier if they hadn’t been nocturnal and done their best feeding at night.
Now that they were almost weaned, they didn’t have to eat as frequently, so they stayed at the clinic. Dr. Max and his lab techs did most feedings these days, but Teagan still loved taking care of them when she could. Fats waddled toward the food she’d prepared for them, but Arwin the Adventuresome beat him there. Tiny Tiddly, the smallest, sat blinking in the corner while Sonic and Speed Racer pushed in beside Fats.
Teagan filled an eyedropper with goat’s milk and picked Tiny Tiddly up carefully. He was her favorite, and not quite as ready as his brothers and sister for solid food. He patted her finger with his plump pink hands while he sucked milk from the eyedropper. When they had all eaten, Teagan cleaned them and took the bowl out of their nest box.
“Don’t give Agnes any trouble.” She checked the clock. She was going to have to run to catch her bus.
“See you Saturday,” Agnes called as Teagan went out the door.
“Saturday,” Teagan said.
The early May wind off Lake Michigan was cool enough to make her shiver, even after her mad dash to the bus stop. Teagan took her sweater out of her backpack and held it up. Cindy had been very careful with it, really. She hadn’t even snagged the loose knitting.
The bus hissed to a stop, and Teagan pulled the sweater over her head before she jumped up the steps. The driver gave her a sour look as she flashed her student pass, and nodded toward the back.
Two grandmotherly ladies frowned at her. One of them said something to the other in German, and they both shook their heads.
Teagan sneezed as she took the empty seat behind them. The old man sitting by the window blinked at her through thick glasses and tried to press himself into the corner.
Teagan smiled apologetically. “It’s just allergies,” she said, digging her Benadryl out of the front pouch of her backpack. “Nothing contagious.” She swallowed the pills with a swig from her water bottle.
“Tea!” Abby Gagliano got on the bus at Clark and Addison. Abby liked to say she had a modeling job at her cousin’s boutique and beauty salon, Smash Pad. Her purple military-style cap pulled sideways, tight black T-shirt, miniskirt, and cargo boots were a walking advertisement for Smash Fashions, and she did spend an hour or two a day posing in the store window. But most of the time she was the assistant pedicurist, specializing in art for the toenails of the rich and eccentric.
Abby rode the bus home with Teagan at least three times a week to spend the night. Her sister Clair had moved back in while her husband was deployed. The only place the Gaglianos had to put her was Abby’s room, and it was small, so Abby and Clair worked out a time-share. They were never home on the same day of the week, and Abby kept half of her clothes in Teagan’s closet.
Teagan looked around for an empty seat as Abby made her way down the aisle. There wasn’t one.
“Thank god you’re here!” Abby grabbed the post to steady herself as the bus started forward. “I’ve been trying to call you. Your life is totally in danger.” Her face twisted. “What’s that smell?”
“What?” Teagan said. “I can’t smell anything.”
The German grandmother turned around.
“You smell like shite,” she said helpfully.
“Oh, my god. Abby, is there something on my sweater?” Teagan twisted so Abby could see her back.
“Yes,” Abby said.
“Help me clean it off.”
“I’m not touching it.”
“Hold my blouse down while I take my sweater off, then,” Teagan said.
Abby grabbed her shirttail, and Teagan wiggled the sweater up over her shoulders, careful not to turn it inside out. Whatever was on it, she didn’t want to smear it on her blouse or in her hair.
“Eew,” Abby said, and let go. Teagan felt cool air on her midriff as the sweater went over her head. She pulled it off her arms, then jerked her blouse down with one hand. Two high school boys across the aisle had goofy smiles on their faces.
“Nice shimmy,” one said.
“Hey.” Abby smiled at him. “You go to our school, don’t you? Geoff Spikes, football team. Quarterback.”
“Does your friend know who I am, too?” Geoff leaned around Abby to leer at Teagan.
Teagan ignored him and turned her sweater over. She should have checked the back before she put it on. Cindy had left a present for her—a thick brown-green gob stuck right between the shoulders. It had squished flat when she’d leaned back, leaving a lovely smear on the bus seat.
“Tell your friend to call me if she wants to hook up,” Geoff said. “I could spend some time with that bod.”
“She’s into brains, not brawn,” Abby said. “You might have a chance. Just one. What’s your IQ?”
“Wrong answer. You’re out.” Abby turned her back on him.
“Abby,” Teagan whispered, “I’m going to kill you.”
“I had to let go of the shirt,” Abby whispered back. “That . . . stuff almost touched me.”
“Did anything show?”
“Anything like wha—” Abby stopped. “You’re wearing a bra, right?”
“Of course I am.”
“Good,” Abby said. “ ‘Cause he had a cell phone.”
“You can kill me later. We have to get off at the next stop. Your life is in danger.”
“I said we have to get off here.”
“I meant the other part. About my life being in danger?”
“I had a dream,” Abby said.
Abby nodded. “I’m totally psychotic. You know I am.”
The old man huddled in the corner threw a worried look at her.
“Psychic. She means psychic,” Teagan assured him, using her sweater to wipe the brown goo from the seat.
“That’s what I said,” Abby agreed. “I should be working for the psychotic hotline, I swear.” She grabbed Teagan’s arm and pulled her down the aisle.
Several passengers cheered as they went down the steps.
“Does the ape poop really smell that bad?”
“My eyes are watering,” Abby said.
“Where are we going?” Teagan asked as the bus pulled away.
“We’re not going.” Abby waved toward the building above them. “We’re here. St. Drogo’s.”
“No, no, no.” Teagan stopped. “I’m not going to church. Not with this sweater.”
“Then throw it away.”
“Never,” Teagan said. “It’s my favorite sweater.”
“How long have I been your best friend?”
“Forever,” Teagan said.
“Damn right.” Abby started up the church steps. “I flunked first grade so you could catch up to me, didn’t I? I gave up a year of my life for you—a whole year! And have I ever asked you to do anything for me?”
“Yes,” Teagan said. “All the time.”
“That’s true. But this is life and death, Tea, I swear. You’re always taking care of other people. Now I am going to take care of you. I’m going to light a candle so Drogo will intercede for you.”
Abby wanted to go to church? She’d only been twice since they’d transferred from St. Joseph’s Academy to public school, and that had been in the ninth grade.
“This is crazy,” Teagan said, but she followed Abby up the steps and past the smiling statue of Saint Drogo leaning on the handle of a hoe. “How is my life in danger?”
“I’ll tell you after we pray.” Abby looked around nervously. “I want to get out of here before Father Gordon sees me.”
They dipped their fingers in the laver and crossed themselves before they stepped into the familiar nave. A second statue of Saint Drogo, his face grim and his hands lifted in petitioning prayer, stood to the side of the altar.
Teagan had asked her parents who Drogo was one Sunday morning when she was six.
“Frodo the hobbit’s father, from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings,” Mr. Wylltson had said. “Isn’t it marvelous that they built a church for him?”
“Hist! John!” Her mother’s Irish accent showed even in a whisper. “Mind you’re in church, and don’t mislead the girl. Saint Drogo was a holy man, and a bilocate. He could be in two places at once. The blessed man spent every Sunday face-down on the floor in front of the altar while simultaneously working in his garden to the glory of God.”
“I think he was sleeping in church,” Mr. Wylltson had said.
“John,” Mrs. Wylltson warned. “I’m instructing our daughter in the things of the faith.” She turned back to Teagan. “That’s why we have two statues—the petitioner and the gardener. If I could do that, think how much painting I could get done.”
“Come on.” Abby tried to pull Teagan toward the altar, but she shook her head. The statues of saints along each wall looked unusually disapproving.
“I’ll wait here.” Teagan slid onto the pew at Saint Francis’s feet. If anyone would understand bringing ape poop to church, it would be Francis.
Abby went to the front, lit a votive candle, and knelt with her head bowed. Teagan shifted on the hard pew.
“Abigail Gagliano.” Father Gordon had entered the nave. “I haven’t seen you for—”
“Laters, Father.” Abby jumped up. “Gotta run.” Teagan followed her out.
“So what was this psychic dream?” Teagan asked. “Did it have perverts with cell phones and a bus in it?”
“No.” Abby shuddered. “Saint Drogo was in it. He was trying to tell me something, but his Italian was all mixed up. Like, not Italian at all. And some of your mother’s paintings—the ones in your basement—came alive. I remember the goblins for sure. The goblins came upstairs, and they were after you, Tea.”
“You’re making me walk six blocks home because you had a crazy dream about my mom’s paintings? You were right, back on the bus. You are psychotic.”
“Whatever,” Abby said. “The people on that bus thought I was a hero for getting you and your monkey poo out of there.”
“Very funny.” Teagan found a plastic grocery bag in the gutter, shook off the twigs and dirt, and wrapped her sweater in it. “And it’s ape poop. Cindy is an ape.”
Aiden was playing Super Mario Galaxy in an alcove off of the living room when they came in the front door. Lennie Santini loomed over him, waving the Wii wand to gather up the stars that appeared on the screen. The alcove was Aiden’s den of boyhood, complete with video games, a Lego castle, and an army of Lego men set up around the room, ready to wage war.
“ Ai-den-is-the-hero,” Aiden sang in sync to the synthesized music.
Teagan winced. If she had known her dad was going to get him a Wii for his fifth birthday, she’d have destroyed every compatible sound system in the house. Aiden was one chip short of being a high-end cell phone. His brain came bundled with an MP3 player and GPS. Every tune he had ever heard was stored in his gray matter. When the music had no lyrics, he made up his own.
“Hey, Tee-gan,” Lennie’s voice boomed. “Hey, hey, cousin Ab-by.”
“Hey, Lennie,” Teagan said. Lennie was a sweet six-year-old trapped in a plump, pimply eighteen-year-old body, and he was Aiden’s best friend in the whole world. “Does Mom know you guys are playing Mario?”
“Dad said I could if I didn’t sing too loud.”
“Dad’s home already?”
“Hey, choirboy,” Abby said. “You still have that goochi-goochi I gave you?”
“Tamagotchi.” Aiden paused Mario and pulled the electronic pet out of his pocket. “I’m taking good care of it, see?”
“Hey!” Lennie squinted at the pixels on the tiny screen. “He’s growing! Let me feed him, okay?”
“Okay.” Aiden handed it to Lennie. “But you have to whisper. Dad said to be quiet because we have company. They’re in the kitchen.”
“Company?” Teagan asked.
Abby followed her through the door into the kitchen. It stretched across the whole back of the old house. They used half of it for food preparation and eating. The other half was an art studio. Teagan’s mother was standing in the art-studio half with a woman in a purple pantsuit. A female water goblin leered out of the still-wet paint on the canvas before them, the strands of her thin hair plastered to her round face.
“You illustrate children’s books?” The woman’s head wagged disapprovingly.
“Write and illustrate.” Aileen Wylltson turned to gaze at the woman.
The woman took a step back. “She’s . . . frightening.”
Teagan wasn’t quite sure whether the woman meant the painting or her mother. She would have given anything to have inherited her mother’s intense amber eyes, ringed by subtle green, but the gene lottery had given her her father’s dark brown eyes instead.
“Of course she’s frightening,” Mrs. Wylltson said. “She’s Ginny Greenteeth. She drowns travelers in bogs.”
Teagan’s father was filling the teakettle at the sink. He smiled at the girls. “How was work, Rosebud?”
“Fine.” Teagan tossed the bagged sweater at the laundry chute. Her father had taken both the doors off, upstairs and down, six months ago to refinish and seal the ancient wood. Now the openings gaped like a monster’s maw, offering up basement breath and the occasional death rattle from their old washing machine. The sweater dropped from sight as her mother and the woman turned toward Teagan.
“Tea, you’re home!” Mrs. Wylltson said. “Ms. Skinner, this is our daughter, Teagan, and her friend Abigail. Tea, this is Ms. Skinner from Social Services.”
Ms. Skinner’s glance flicked from Teagan to Abby, and her thin lips pressed together. She clearly did not approve of Smash Pad’s fashion statement.
“Pleased to meet you,” Teagan said.
“A teenage daughter!” Ms. Skinner’s ginger eyebrows drew together. “You should consider her safety when deciding who you take into your home.”
“We always take our children’s safety into consideration,” Mr. Wylltson assured her.
Ms. Skinner ignored him and studied Teagan. “How do you feel about your cousin Finn coming to live with you?” she asked.
Teagan blinked. “Who?”