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Because of Cockroaches
I sat outside Mrs. Stearns’s office, waiting to hear my fate. I was pretty sure this was the first time in history a kid had gotten in trouble for ruining the Fifth Grade End-of-the-Year Celebration. According to a number of my classmates, I had upended a container of cockroaches on top of Roxie Johnson’s head before running out into the hall and pulling the fire alarm.
I had pulled the alarm—but only to buy myself some time to think, and honestly, the part about me bringing in a box of roaches to get back at Roxie was a much safer explanation than what had really happened.
I stared at the closed door, listening to the angry, muffled conversation on the other side. My parents had been in there for more than an hour, and I’d made out the word “expulsion” no less than four times.
The secretary, Mrs. Beamer, sat at her desk typing, but she looked up every few minutes to shake her head and glare at me like I was a cockroach. I wanted to tell her the whole thing was a horrible accident. That the wish I’d made had just slipped out after Roxie had humiliated me in front of the entire fifth grade.
I wanted to tell Mrs. Beamer how extra careful I’d been over the years to not say the word wish in public—and how I never, ever would’ve said it if I’d known Roxie’s hair would disappear along with the roaches.
I squeezed my eyes shut to erase the picture of Roxie’s bald head from my mind. Mrs. Stearns had insisted I take a “long, hard look” at a sobbing Roxie so I could see “the devastation” I’d caused with my “little prank,” while the school nurse, Mrs. Pope, had said she was sure it was an extreme allergic reaction to cockroaches that had made Roxie’s hair spontaneously fall out.
I leaned over and put my head in my hands. How had I let this happen? How could I have slipped up in front of everyone? The only good thing was that nobody knew my secret—nobody knew my wishes really came true.
As I sat across from Mrs. Beamer, I remembered the disastrous wish I’d made six years ago. My parents are entomologists, or in other words, big, fat bug nuts, and we’d stopped for the night on the way home from the twenty-fifth annual Putnam County Cockroach Appreciation Conference in Texas. It was my birthday, and I wasn’t exactly happy spending what should’ve been the most exciting day of the year besides Christmas surrounded by scientists applauding the virtues of the world’s most indestructible insect.
To make it up to me, my parents surprised me in our hotel room with a little pink cake topped with five blue candles.
“Blow them out and make a wish, Maggie,” Mom said.
I let out a big puff, then closed my eyes. “I wish I had a monkey like the one in Barty Bananas Saves the Circus,” I whispered.
My eyes flew open in a flash as the piercing cry of a chimpanzee, followed by my parents’ screams, echoed in the room.
Right in front of me—sitting in my cake—was a scowling Barty Bananas wearing a yellow-and-red-striped vest. At first I was upset that the cake was ruined. I mean, even a five-year-old knows better than to eat something a monkey’s butt has been sitting in. But then I looked at my parents.
Their eyes were wide, their mouths hung open; they looked like they were on the verge of keeling over.
I didn’t understand. Yes, Barty Bananas had flattened the cake; but my wish had come true, so why weren’t they happy?
The chimp howled again, dipped his long fingers in the cake, and flung a chunk at my dad—covering his face in a splatter of pink frosting. My mom shook her head disbelievingly and stared at Barty, opening and closing her mouth like a fish on dry land.
Barty bared his yellow teeth and shrieked. Dad’s eyes rolled back, and he hit the floor like a coconut dropping from a palm tree.
It didn’t take a genius to figure out that the problem wasn’t Barty Bananas shaking his pink-frosted behind and flinging cake around the room. The problem was that my parents hadn’t expected my wish to come true.
With my dad passed out and my mom looking like she might join him any second, I wished Barty and the mess away, and sat on the bed looking innocently at my magically repaired cake—candles still smoking.
Once my dad came to, he started talking about group hallucinations and something called Legionnaires’ disease that’s common at conventions. My mom kept asking me how Barty had appeared, but I pretended I didn’t know what they were talking about.
The cake went uneaten, and I learned an important lesson—people like magic in storybooks, far away from real life.
From that point on, I was always on my best behavior, because I was a little worried about what parents did with kids who could conjure up crazed monkeys. I even had nightmares about being sent to a home for the magically insane.
So after Barty’s appearance I tried not to wish for anything unless I was in my room with the door locked. And I didn’t wish for anything big like a monkey—just candy and an occasional soda. Because besides insects, my parents are obsessed with healthy foods, and there’s just so much chocolate-flavored tofu a kid can eat without craving the real thing.
There was also the time I wished up some earthworms to scare my babysitter, Ashley, who was more interested in texting her boyfriend than playing with me. She ended up with a lapful of garter snakes instead of worms—a classic example of how sometimes my wishes go wrong—and after that I realized I had to be extra, extra careful and keep my magic under wraps! And I’d been doing a great job, if I do say so myself—until today.
Finally, Mrs. Stearns’s door opened, and I jumped up. Mom and Dad looked as pale as they had when Barty had made his appearance.
“Let’s go,” Dad said. I gulped as I stared at a vein I’d never noticed before bulging on his forehead.
Mom turned to Dad. “Maybe Connecticut,” she muttered.
My heart just about stopped. Connecticut was where Gram lived. Gram, who I only saw once a year when she’d come out for Thanksgiving. Gram, who’d never been a cookie-baking, huggy kind of grandmother. Gram, who never smiles.
“Connecticut?” I asked as we left the building.
Mom sighed. “Nothing’s been decided, but we are in the difficult position of finding a new school for you next year.”
We got in the car and drove home in silence.
Two weeks later my worst fear came true.
“I thought Connecticut was out! I thought you said there was a good chance I could get into Buxton Prep?”
“We can’t afford the tuition,” Dad said.
“My grades are pretty good—maybe I could get a scholarship?”
Mom shook her head. “I’ve already spoken to the admission officer. Expulsion from the Academy district disqualifies you from scholarship awards.”
“Did you tell them Roxie had been bullying me?”
“Roxie’s teasing does not excuse what you did, young lady!” Mom snapped.
I hung my head and, for the hundredth time this week, considered telling them the truth. “You could homeschool me,” I said instead.
“Well, that would be rather difficult, considering your mother and I will be in South America.”
My eyes nearly popped out of my head. “What?”
My parents exchanged looks. Mom nodded at Dad and they turned to face me.
“You know Professor Nelson,” Dad said, “the head of the Entomology Department?”
I nodded as my stomach fluttered nervously.
“Well,” Mom continued, “she received some grant money to do an insect species count in the Amazon.”
I nodded again and felt a lump welling up in my throat.
“Professor Nelson had asked us to be on the team a few weeks ago,” Mom said. “It was an incredible honor and an amazing chance to discover new species and maybe even a new cockroach. We told her we couldn’t possibly go, but now . . .”
shook my head in disbelief—first my friend Sarah had e-mailed to tell me her parents had forbidden her to come over anymore, and now my parents were abandoning me too.
“You’re choosing cockroaches over me?”
“It’s not like that at all,” Dad said. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for your mother and me. Besides, it’ll give you a chance to get to know your grandmother better.”
“But I don’t want to get to know Gram better!”
Mom reached out and put her hand on my arm. “It’s only for a year.”
I yanked my arm away and stood up. “A year? I have to live with Gram for a whole year?”
“You can reapply to the Academy district after that,” Mom said, “and by then I’m sure everyone will have had time to forget about what happened.”
I rolled my eyes. Like anyone would ever forget Roxie’s cockroach makeover. I already knew I could never go back to Academy, but I’d thought that if I did go to Connecticut, Mom and Dad would be coming with me.
I looked at my parents staring at me, and a tear tumbled down my cheek. “But why can’t I come with you? I won’t be any trouble, I swear!”
Mom sighed. “Oh, Maggie, the Amazon isn’t exactly kid-friendly. Believe me, we thought long and hard about this. We wouldn’t send you to your grandmother’s if we didn’t think you’d be happy there.”
“And you won’t go until just before school starts, so we’ll have lots of time to be together,” Dad said, like that would make everything okay.
“I can’t believe you’re doing this to me.” I was so mad, I considered wishing up an encore performance from Barty Bananas! “How could you leave me to count a bunch of cockroaches—who even cares how many there are, anyway?”
“I know it’s hard for someone your age to understand,” Dad said. “But it’s a very important biodiversity study, honey.”
“This is an opportunity for you, too,” Mom added. “A whole new state to explore, new friends to discover. It’ll be a fresh start.”
I brushed my blond bangs out of my eyes and folded my arms across my chest. “Oh, great—a fresh start with someone I see once a year.”
Dad stood up and walked over to me. He wrapped his arms around me and I started cry. “I know you don’t get to see your grandmother that often, but I think she’s really looking forward to your stay.”
Yeah, I was sure the woman who couldn’t even be bothered to sign my birthday card was really looking forward to having me move in.
© 2010 Amanda Marrone