It wasn't like an earthquake hit on that hot July day in Tillerman, but the world might as well have leaped up like a crazed bull and tried to buck Zoe off its back. If Zoe had known what was coming, she wouldn't have stuck around to help her mom with dinner. She would have gone to Kellen's house, eaten macaroni and cheese, and spent one more night as a regular kid.
Zoe thought about it later, trying to figure out the exact moment when she heard the first rumblings of her own personal earthquake. And she decided it began with hide-and-seek. Her house on 18 Hawk Road was a great place to play because it was big and old and there were tons of places to hide.
"Fifty-five. Fifty-six." Her brother, Juke, was counting in the kitchen. Kellen had already raced down the hall, but Zoe was still circling. Where to this time? Behind the ancient piano? The storage nook under the stairs? Juke knew too many of her hiding spots, so she'd have to pull off a good disappearing act to win. She peered under the couch. Too easy.
"Seventy-eight." Smack. Crunch. "Seventy-nine." Juke was downing saltines while he counted. Zoe ran around the corner and made a dash for Dad's stuffed chair in the sunroom.
"Taken," whispered Kellen. She sucked on a strand of honey brown hair, and her green eyes said everything. She wasn't going to budge.
"Ninety-seven. Ninety-eight. Ninety-nine!"
Zoe flew into her parents' room, usually off-limits, but this was an emergency.
"Ready or not. Here I come!"
Zoe dove under the double bed. She was deep inside the musty dark, blowing away dust bunnies, when she saw Juke's bare feet just outside the bedroom door, his toes iced in brown dirt. He turned slowly and brushed against Grandma Nell's rocking chair. The chair rocked back and forth as if a ghost were settling in. Tension grew in her chest as Juke passed the bedroom door and headed for the dining room.
She should make a dash to the base soon, but Juke was still too close by. Better to kill a little more time under the bed. She slid on her belly just far enough to eye the photographs on the bedroom wall. Dad and Juke standing with Max outside Horizon Books before it went under. Mom with her prizewinning roses at the garden fair. Then there were those stupid baby pictures. Shots of her in a tie-dyed T-shirt and sagging diapers rocking out at a Jam for Breakfast concert. Another shot taken when she was three, sitting next to the band's drum set, eating a chocolate brownie, her round cheeks so brown, it looked like she was maybe pigging out on a hunk of mud. She'd ripped those two shots off the wall one time last year, but Dad had put them back.
Zoe licked her dry lips. What was the deal with those photos, anyway? So they captured the days when Dad took the family on tour with Jam for Breakfast. That was history. They'd put down roots here in Tillerman when she was four, and this was home now.
She listened for Juke and was considering a brave dash for home base when the phone rang. By the third ring her mom's slender feet appeared in tattered sandals and crossed the floor. "Oh, hi, honey." The bed dipped suddenly as Mom sat down, the springs catching a strand of Zoe's hair.
Zoe bit her lip and worked to untangle the brown strand as Mom talked to Dad. "Oh," said Mom, her voice low and disappointed. "Okay, Hap." There was a long pause. A sort of throaty sound. "Did you speak to Mr. Sallenger? Uh-huh. A deal already?"
Zoe listened closer. Dad had made a deal with the landlord, but then Mom didn't sound happy about it.
"No," said Mom, "it doesn't surprise me. He's been talking about that for a long time." Another low sound, like wind through a pipe. "No," said Mom. "I'm not crying. I'm not blaming you. Stop being so paranoid.
Yes, I know we have to do this!" Zoe's fingers froze, midtangle.
"I told you I can handle it!" Mom stood up suddenly, and Zoe squealed as a hunk of hair pulled away from her scalp.
"Just a minute, Hap." A pale face with long black hair appeared under the bed. "Zoe, get out from under there. Now!"
Zoe's T-shirt gathered dust as she scooted out from under the bed. "Hide-and-seek," whispered Zoe, but Mom looked stern, as if Zoe had been purposefully spying on her.
"It's nothing, Hap," said Mom as Zoe fled the room. "Just a game the kids are playing."
Zoe's legs felt heavy as she started for home base in the kitchen. She didn't care so much about being caught now. She wanted to be caught. She stood in the living room feeling the white heat zap through the front window. It fell across her bare feet and lit up the red-gold pattern in the Persian carpet.
Merlin trotted up the stairs and licked her hand. She rubbed his soft golden fur.
"Hey!" shouted Juke as he rounded the corner. "One two three on Zoe!"
"Yeah, sure," said Zoe. "You got me." She tipped her head, trying to hear more of the conversation in the next room. Was Mom crying? Juke shrugged and ran off to find Kellen, and the room was quiet again.
Outside in the front yard the trees were still, not even a whisper of wind in the branches. Then there was a familiar rattling sound as the old pipes under the floorboards pumped water to the master bathroom. The toilet flushed, gurgled, and Mom raced out of her bedroom. "Zoe? Run and get the plunger, quick. The toilet's stopped up again!"
Ten minutes later Mom was still cursing and plunging the toilet. Kellen was on her way home, and Zoe was told to set the table.
It was the last game Zoe ever played at 18 Hawk Road.
Steam rose from the soup pot, filling the air with the odor of cooked onions. It was too hot for soup, but food had been scarce since Horizon Books went under and onions were cheap. Plates and bowls were already on the table. Zoe slid open a drawer and pulled out four spoons. Mom came in, paused, and blew upward, her bangs fluttering like startled blackbirds.
"Toilet okay?" asked Zoe.
"Doesn't matter," said Mom.
"What do you mean?"
Mom didn't answer. That wasn't like Mom, but then, she'd been pretty uptight ever since Dad lost his teaching job and the bookstore, too. Zoe grabbed the napkins and left her in the kitchen, leaning over the counter, tossing the lettuce and tomatoes fiercely, as if they were in the way of something she wanted at the bottom of the bowl.
Half an hour later the family gathered for dinner. Dad set the soup pot on the hot pad and took his seat at the head of the table. Onion soup and corn bread in July. Heat on heat. The soup steamed. The corn bread bent the air above the pan like a mirage. The damp air glued Dad's gray-blond hair to his forehead. He pulled it back and adjusted his ponytail before opening his napkin.
Mom's lip quivered as Dad served the soup. No one mentioned today's job interview, even though the no hung over all of them and wrung sweat from their skin like the soup steam. Zoe stared out the cracked old window to the backyard. Twilight. The acacia branches moved slowly in the wind, as if they were under water. The tree looked cool and inviting. She decided to eat fast, run outside, leap onto the tire swing, and fly over the ravine. She'd swing till the moon and stars came out. All she had to do was finish her soup and corn bread.
After dinner Dad passed around a plate of Oreos for dessert. A real treat like they hadn't seen in months. Zoe wanted to say What gives? but then she lost her mouth to the crisp chocolate and sweet cream filling. She was dunking her second cookie when Dad leaned back in his chair and said he didn't get the job. No surprise there.
Juke licked the creamy center of his Oreo and told Dad to find another job in town.
"The trouble is, we're living in such a small town. And with the economy the way it is..." Dad crossed his arms. "I've tried for months now. I've looked in Tillerman and hunted for work a couple of hours' drive in all directions. Too many places going out of business around here. There just aren't any job openings."
Mom cleared her throat and toyed with her water glass. Dad leaned forward. "Mom and I have talked it over. We've tried everything, and it's just not...it's time to move on and look for work elsewhere."
"Move on?" whispered Zoe.
"To where, Dad?" asked Juke.
"We'll head north," said Mom, trying to smile. She reached for Dad's hand. "Some of the college towns up there will probably have work."
"It'll be an adventure," said Dad.
"Like the years you toured with Jam for Breakfast?" said Juke.
"Not exactly," said Dad.
"No," said Zoe.
Dad leaned back in his chair. "It's not like we have much choice, honey."
"What about Merlin?"
"Max and June said they'll keep Merlin for us until we find a place to -- "
"You guys go ahead," said Zoe. "I'll stay here."
"Honey, you can't stay. We have to be out by the end of the week. Mr. Sallenger's got a buyer."
Zoe leaped up. "18 Hawk Road? For sale? When did he do that?"
"He's had an interested family ready to buy for a while now, and it looks like the deal's going to go through."
So this was "the deal" with Mr. Sallenger that Mom had mentioned in the phone call. "But he can't kick us out! This is our home! "
"Zoe, we can't go on living here," said Dad. "I know you're upset, but we have to move on."
Zoe steadied herself against the chair. The rumblings she'd felt earlier had accelerated, and the quake was definitely hitting her now. "Who'd want to buy this old place?" she yelled. "With stains on the wood floors, leaky pipes, the furnace that conks out every winter, the backed-up toilets that have to be flushed three times, the -- "
"Zoe, sit down," said Dad, pressing his index finger on the table. But Zoe turned and raced from the dining room with Merlin at her heels. Downstairs she closed her bedroom door and turned the lock.
Her heart splashed down like some stupid stone in some stupid river. She went cold all over. This was her house. The whole crazy, crooked place. The sunroom with its sloping floors you could roll your marbles down. The wide, bright living room. The walls with sagging wallpaper. The sinks that coughed and spat when you turned them on. She knew every creak and crack and cranky sound of the place.
Merlin wagged his tail and licked her bare feet. "Cut it out, Mer." She stepped into the center of her room, feeling the cool linoleum floor on the soles of her feet. She'd stay here. They couldn't make her move. Not if the door was locked.
Outside the sky was turning deep blue. Her toys and stacks of games turned into blue shadows as the room filled with twilight. Even the glass knob on her closet door was blue, as if a secret ocean were slowly flooding her room.
From the hall behind her came the sound of footsteps. Dad knocked on her door. "Zoe? Can I come in?"
"Zoe, don't do this."
Zoe stood still until the knocking stopped. The air was thick with color. Zoe moved her arms. Swimming in it. Losing herself in the middle of the blue.
Copyright © 2004 by Janet Lee Carey