Authors: Alan Madison
Copyright © 2008 by Alan Madison
Illustrations copyright © 2008 by Julia Denos
All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.
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First eBook Edition: May 2008
The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.
Dedicated to those who in every generation have courageously remained to keep the home fires burning.
And to four strong, Julie M., Karen K., Gail H., and Nancy C., whose support keeps the fustilugs away.
veryone calls me Esme, which is five letters short of my given name, Esmerelda. My middle name, Swishback, is my mother’s last name before she got married. And my last name, McCarther, is spelled with two C’s — the first one is a baby and the second one isn’t. That’s me all over: I’m Esmerelda Swishback McCarther.
I have one biggish brown dog named Napoleon; two smallish hairy hamsters, Grant who is white and Lee who is black; a bowl of goldfish; and one little brother we call “Ike” which is almost nearly two letters short of his given name, Isaac.
I love most every animal from whales to worms, with three exceptions: skunks, skinks, and my little brother, Ike. Skunks smell bad and skinks are lizardly and stick tight when they bite. Ike is a little like both.
On my bed, piled in a big mound over and around my pillow and down, is my A to Z, absolutely almost complete collection of stuffed animals. I have every letter, from A (aardvark) to Z (zebra) — except for X because there is no animal I have found that begins with that troublesome letter. The only words I know that even start that way are xylophone, x-ray, and x-actly.
I keep all my fuzzy animal friends in strict alphabet order starting from A (aardvark) on the left side of my pillow to Z (zebra) on the right and all the middling letters, L (lamb, lion), M (muskrat), and N (nightingale). Then O, P, Q, R, and S, running from the middle right down to the foot of my bed. Dad says that this is a very Swishback thing to do.
Sometimes, Ike comes into my room and for no good reason mixes them all up. Mom says this is a very McCarther thing to do. I wish I could have Ike stuffed and keep him lying silent between my hippopotamus and my jaguar. But I don’t think that would make my parents too happy.
The best part of my “bedzoo” (which is what my dad named my collection) is that each animal reminds me of someone or something special. For example, Alvin, my stuffed brown and slightly frayed aardvark, reminds me of Grandpa McCarther, gin rummy, and my missing appendix.
But my most loved possession of all, which I keep carefully hidden in the pouch of Katie my kangaroo, is the remains of what once was my pinkish-blue blanket. When I was born, Grandma Swishback sent it to me special delivery. It used to be a full blanket with wonderfully woven stripes running across it, but now after my seven-plus years and four-plus countries in exactly four different continents, it is nothing more than a frayed scrap of pink threads tangled up in blue ones. I call it blankie and at night I hold it against my cheek to help me fall asleep.
Sometimes grown-ups can say the silliest things like, “Esme, aren’t you too old to have a blankie?”
This makes me mad-sad, which is my worst feeling because it is one you can’t do anything about. It is like being on a carousel that keeps going around and around getting faster and faster, and if you don’t get off quick it makes you real nauseous. When I am mad that is okay because I can yell. Like the day when Ike came into my room (which, by the way, he is not allowed to do without my permission) and jumbled my animals.
“Isaac Swishback McCarther, I will mash you if you do that again!” I screeched, which sent him scurrying away and made me feel a little better.
When I am just sad, like when Ike said, “You are the worst sister in the whole wide world!” I can curl up with my animals, pull my pinkish-blue blankie scrap from Katie my kangaroo’s pouch, and rub it against my cheek. This always makes me feel a little better. Sometimes when I am really sad I even cry. But just sometimes . . .
But with mad-sad there is nothing at all to do. Like the time our next-door neighbor, Mrs. Hadley, dropped off milk and eggs from the market once as a favor and asked, “Esme, aren’t you too old to have a blankie?”
First I got mad and pounded my size fours up to my room and then I got sad and cried. Around and around, faster and faster, I went on this mad-sad carousel. Mom knocked and entered.
“Sometimes grown-ups can say the silliest things,” she said. She scooped up my yak, unicorn, and zebra, moved them to her lap, sat in their spot, and stroked my hair from the top of my head down to its shoulder-length ends.
“People who don’t think before they talk are called fustilugs. And we really must feel sorry for them.”
For five seconds I stopped sobbing and raced through all the words I keep in my head to see if I had ever heard this one before. I most definitely had not. A new word is like a sweet butterscotch sucking candy — you have to enjoy every second of it because you will most probably only get one that day.
“Fustilugs — it rhymes with crusty bugs.”
A short burst of hot wet air snorted from my nose, which is what happens when you laugh and cry at the same exact time.
“You see, darling, in the remote country of Nostomania, in its very center, in its densest jungle, live long bandy-legged blue bugs, called fustilugs.”
My mad-sad slowly crawled into plain curiosity. To hear better, I slid Hanna my hippo (missing her right button eye) over and propped my head up on her big butt.
“These crusty bugs enter in through the ears of sleeping adults who, even when they are awake, don’t think very much, and then creep down deep into their heads.”
My lips slight-separated in horror. Mom’s hand ran reassuringly down my hair.
“They know it is safe, empty, and quiet in the head of an adult who doesn’t think so much. Once inside, they spin their thick spiderish webs to make their nests. These silvery threads clog up the grown-up’s brain and make it absolutely impossible for these thoughtless people to think of a sentence or even a word without actually saying it. These fustilugs, whose heads are now filled with the gummy webs of crusty blue bugs, live miserably, wandering from town to town without friends, ’cause whatever they think — they say. It is all so very sad.”
My mom’s a good storyteller.
Since Mom told me this sad bug tale, I have learned that it is best not to respond to a fustilug because they are just plain jealous, and probably deep down wish they had a blankie as special as mine. What Mom and I know that these fustilugs don’t is that Grandma Swishback, who knit this for me, left us forever three years ago. So this scrap of blue and pink is the only thing I have that reminds me of her . . . I think it reminds Mom too.
Dad says that along our path from home to home I’ve lost scraps of my blankie, so that if I ever wanted to find my way back to any one particular place I could retrace my steps by following the pinkish-blue shreds — just like in Hansel and Gretel. I didn’t think it was much of a joke and frowned, turning the corners of my mouth super way down. Dad said I looked just like a Swishback when I frowned this way, which to him, a McCarther, was no great compliment.
My father, August Aloysius McCarther the Third, is a sergeant in the United States Army. His father, and my grandfather, August Aloysius McCarther the Second, was in the army, and his father’s father, my great-grandfather, August Aloysius McCarther the very first, was also in the army. Dad says that McCarthers have been in the army since the beginning of time or at least since the beginning of “the good ol’ U.S. of A.”
That’s what Dad likes to call it, “the good ol’ U.S. of A.”
When I’m old enough, I’ll probably be in the army too.
In the army, you get to travel around a whole lot. Sometimes you’re sent to really interesting places and sometimes . . . you’re not.
Dad says that because of the army he stood shoulder to shoulder with polar bears and watched the sun rise over the frozen fields of Alaska, which sounds really exciting. And because of the army he slept in sludge, shoulder to shoulder with snakes, and watched the sun set over the swamps of Alabama — which does not.
Dad says that each state has its particular pleasures but if given the choice he prefers Alaska, standing with the bears. But the army doesn’t really give you a choice and no matter where you’re sent, you go, because when you’re in the army you follow orders and you don’t ever complain.
“In the army we don’t ask why. We just do.”
“Why?” I dared to ask again.
“That’s just the way it is.”
Which to me is an answer that leaves room for more questions at the same time that it leaves no room for more questions.
Grandpa McCarther brought me my soft stuffed aardvark, Alvin, when I was in the hospital when my appendix was angry. The doctors removed it (the appendix, not the aardvark) and as a reminder left me a scary little pink scar at the edge of my belly. Grandpa McCarther sat there the whole day reading me books and teaching me how to play gin rummy. He is a top-dog teacher but not such a good player. He lost most every game!
hen I was two, my family lived in Seoul, South Korea. Being a baby at the time, I don’t remember boo about Korea except that it was ice-cream cold and most everywhere we went, we went bundled under a quilt, a coat, and a sweater! All the people who lived there were the crispy color of perfectly toasted marshmallows, like the ones that my dad made on the stove during those wintry Korean nights. All the people there didn’t speak the language I spoke, so they didn’t talk to me so often, but when they did, it wasn’t so much like talking as it was like singing.
Since I was just a baby, I don’t really actually know if I especially liked living in Korea, but when Mom and I flip through the photo albums she has carefully organized by month and year, from the time she was a little girl looking just like me, through when she knew Daddy but did not know me, to when I arrived, past all our trips, up to just about yesterday, I point out that I am smiling, so I must have liked it.
“You were a very happy baby,” she remarks, raising her eyebrows in high arcs.
Mom didn’t particularly like what she calls “our little Korean adventure.”
When I turned three, we moved to Nairobi, Kenya. That’s where Ike was born. I don’t remember boo about Kenya, either, except that it was oatmeal hot and most everywhere we went, we never ever wore a quilt, a coat, a sweater, or even a shirt! Most everyone who lived there was the color of double deep chocolate frosting, the kind my mom spreads thick across the cake she makes on my birthday. With my paler freckled skin and straight lighter brown hair, I felt like I had landed from a faraway planet. Most everyone who lived there didn’t speak the language I spoke, so they didn’t talk to me so often, but when they did, it wasn’t so much like talking as it was a hushed whisper.
I remember the sound of gallons of rain pounding on our roof during the noisy nights and the steady hiss of white steam rising off the ground during the super silent hot days. But mostly I remember our drives through the country, seeing real live rhinos, antelope, crocodiles, wildebeests, and even lions.
I don’t really actually remember if I liked living in Kenya, but I am smiling in the photos, so I must have.
“You were a very happy toddler,” Mom says again, making her eyebrows into high arcs.
I don’t think she really, truly liked what she calls “our little Kenyan adventure” either.
Whenever we have to move to new country my dad calls Mom, me, and Ike into the kitchen, which is the most important room in our house because that’s where we do all our most excellent cooking and all our most serious talking, and says, “Okay, troops, it’s time to pack up and head out.”
Then Mom reminds us in her funny but strict voice, which is the tone she takes when she means something serious but wants to pretend it is a joke, “No questions asked.”
“Because no answers will be given!” adds Dad in his big booming sergeant voice, as if we were his actual soldiers. This is the voice he uses to make us feel very important — and it does.
So we pack up and head out without a peep.
When I was five we moved to Frankfurt, Germany, and when I was six we were sent to Hamburg, also in Germany. I felt that these were very tasty places to live because I liked eating frankfurts and hamburgs.
Germany was oatmeal hot in the summer and ice-cream cold in the winter. Sometimes we needed a quilt, a coat, and a sweater, and sometimes we didn’t. Most everyone who lived there was the color of the pale milk Mom pours over my breakfast cereal.
Most everyone there didn’t speak the language I spoke, so they didn’t speak to me so often, but when they did, it wasn’t so much like talking as it was like they were guard-dog-barking.
“Esmerelda Swishback McCarther! That is not very nice at all.”
Well, that is what it sounded like to me!
I would practice their words by making the far back of my throat vibrate until sounds like aaacchhhhh and ooocchhhh would rumble out.
I really actually remember living in Frankfurter and Hamburger and don’t have to check my frown in the photo albums to know that I really didn’t like “our little German adventure” too much.
I was never really positive what people were saying to me and I’m pretty sure they weren’t so positive about what I was saying to them. So even though I had Ike, Napoleon, Grant and Lee, Mom, Dad, my A to Z bedzoo, and my scraggly blankie, I was a little — just a little — lonely.
When I turned lucky seven my dad called us into the kitchen, which I think I have mentioned is the most important room in our house because that’s where we do all our super important cooking and all our serious talking, and said, “Okay, troops, it’s time to pack up and head out. We are going back to the good ol’ U.S. of A.”
So we did.