Authors: Jess Keating
Copyright Â© 2015 by Jess Keating
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Cover design by Liz Casal
Cover illustrations by Liz Casal
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To the brave kids, the weird kids, and the cool kids. Especially the ones who don't yet realize they can be all three.
I love the smell of the universe in the morning.
âNeil deGrasse Tyson
Really, Mr. Tyson?
What about the smell of hippo poop wafting into your bedroom window in the morning? Or the wet-dog stink of a flock of pelicans who strut around like they own the place, and no matter how often you try to shoo them out of the way, they get even more puffed up and snooty at you? I don't know what
universe smells like, but around here,
universe isn't exactly the sweetest smelling peach in the pie. I mean, not that I blame you or anything, and I don't mean to sound rude. Justâ¦you know? I'm too busy trying to keep up with my
to pay attention to what the universe smells like.
Sorry for snapping at you there. No hard feelings, okay, Neilio?
Some sharks can never stop moving, or else they will suffocate and die.
Whoa, sucks to be them! Can you imagine never getting to sleep in? Or laze around on a Saturday morning in your jammies watching cartoons? But they can grow like a zillion teeth, which would probably come in handy for eating jawbreakers and scaring mean people. So maybe it evens out in the end.
Hijinks at the Zoo?
Visitors to Denver's Zoological Park and Gardens this Sunday got a big surprise when Ana Wright, granddaughter of the famed Shep Foster, fell into a shark tank during an educational presentation. The twelve-year-old was not injured.
“It looked like she threw herself in!” said Jonathon Wexley, a local business owner who witnessed the accident. “One minute that other girl was talking about sharks, and the next? She just jumped!” The impromptu dip in the shark tank wasn't the only surprise that day, when police arrived at the scene to arrestâ¦
One month earlier
Throwing myself into a shark tank is
my idea of a good time. Luckily, my summer didn't
with sharks. But it did start with some big changes.
No. Big is an understatement.
It also started with a crocodile chomping down on my finger.
Good thing she was only six inches long, huh?
“Ouch!” I yelped, yanking my hand away from the teensy snapping jaws. “She got me!” I inspected my finger, searching for signs of blood. Her pinprick teeth didn't break the skin, but there was a row of teeth imprints that looked like a zipper on my finger. The little bugger gawked up at me with her taupey-yellow eyes. Almost as if she were trying to say, “Who, me?! I'm too
to hurt you!”
Please. Reptiles can't fool me.
The babies had hatched only minutes ago, just in time for Grandpa to call us at home in a frenzy, giddier than a dog in a Milk-Bone factory, yammering on about “the miracle of life” and all that. From what I could tell, the miracle of life came with a lot ofâ¦
. The hatchlings were already chirping up a storm and nipping at fingers when Daz and I got there. That's the thing about living in a zoo. You've got to be ready for
And right when you think you've got things sorted out, it up and changes on you all over again. Sometimes there are even crocodiles there to
you not to get too comfortable, because life will go biting you again.
Think I'm joking? Let's recap the past month's highlight reel, shall we?
Top Three Changes in My Life
1. My entire family now lives in a zoo. And I don't mean that in the dramatic, metaphorical sense either. Although my twin brother, Daz, is an absolute monkey. More on him later. I used to think living in a zoo would be crazy, but it turns out I actually LOVE it. Well, parts of it. You know, once you get past the whole poop thing. I especially like giving educational presentations like my mom, but that
took some getting used to.
2. My best friend, Liv, lives a billion miles away, in a place called New Zealand. For a while after she moved, I didn't think I would be able to survive without her, but I'm trying to stand up for myself now, which is actually a lot harder than it sounds.
3. I have a grandfather. Okay, that's not exactly big news, but my grandfather is
. Instead of playing chess and wearing old-timey knit sweaters like most grandpas, mine follows dangerous animals on television and wears Hawaiian shirts. Oh, he's also dating a supermodel actress named Sugar. It's his fault that exactly 3.4 million people have now seen me on the Internet giving my presentation about reptiles at the zoo.
4. My room smells like hippos.
Did I say there were only three things? That's what happens when you live in a zoo. Your brain gets all scrambly like eggs in a pan.
I placed the feisty croc baby back in the incubator next to her sisters, giving her the “how dare you bite me?!” stink eye for good measure. The large plastic tub was filled with craggy wet eggshells and crocodile goop.
“Watch yourself, there!” Grandpa chuckled. “We don't want you losing a finger.”
Daz made a face. “She's
,” he said, rolling his eyes.
Currently the third bedroom of our zoo house, which smells suspiciously like moldy cheese, gym socks, and stale Cheetos. How can he
in there?! The place should be declared a biohazard zone.
My Idiot Brother (Despite my attempts to get Mom to admit he's adopted, apparently we
actually twins. But not the kind that look like each other. Thank God for that.)
Still 120 pounds of sarcasm. Some things never change.
Sneaking around the zoo, spooking tourists; the bathroom (how else will he get his spiky hair to defy gravity like that?); hanging out with his best friend Kevin who
to be the most adorkable guy on the planet.
Cheetos, my annoyance, and the hoard of snakes he keeps as pets.
Pretty sure he's a robot.
“It's not like they can do much damage,” Daz said. “Why do they sound like squeaky toys?” He held a crocodile baby gently in his hands and lifted it to his face, grinning. “This one looks like she's smiling! Look! I should take her home and call her Daz Jr.!” He started cooing, baring his teeth at the reptile.
It grinned back, confirming my theory that Daz shares a brain with all cold-blooded creatures. Any minute now he would convince them to do his bidding and there would be an uprising.
Grandpa picked up one of the leathery eggshells, turning it over in his hands. “They're calling for their mother,” he explained. “In the wild, they even chirp like that
their shells. That's how the mom knows they're almost ready to hatch. Sometimes she'll even help them hatch by rolling the eggs around in her mouth.”
I frowned, trying to get that slimy image out of my head. Thank God
didn't lay eggs.
“How long do we get to keep them?” I asked. “You said they're going somewhere now?” I reached in and scratched my little biter on her scaly head.
Grandpa nodded. “They'll be on their way soon!” He set the eggshell back into the incubator and wiped his hands on his bright red Hawaiian shirt. “We were helping out with a breeding program for research, but they'll need forever homes now that they've hatched. Great news for the species!” His eyes twinkled the way they always did when he was talking about animals.
A pang of sadness skipped through me, knowing these cute little creatures wouldn't be around here for the summer. It's not every day I get to hang out with reptiles that
chomp my arm off, you know?
“Hey,” Grandpa said, noticing my frown. “Buck up! Besides,” he said, waggling his eyebrows mysteriously. “Don't forget about my little surprise! You'll have
of chances to have fun this summer, with or without these little guys.”
My breath caught as tightness grew in my chest. I know normally the thought of surprises made kids happy. But can you blame me for being a little weirded out? The
time Grandpa surprised us, I ended up living in a zoo and got humiliated on national television in an interview that I'm positive will put me on a therapist's couch one day. I wasn't sure if I could stomach another patented “Shep Foster surprise.” I could only hope it didn't come with a camera crew this time.
I tried to look excited, or at the very least like I wasn't dreading what he had planned. “Are you sure you can't just
us what's going on first?” I ventured. “It's not like you need to surprise us all the time. We're not little kids anymore.” I glanced at Daz for support, but he was too busy trying to fit his new crocodile BFF in his shirt pocket to notice.
“I'm going to make her a bow tie,” he announced, ignoring our conversation.
wasn't a little kid anymore.
I still wasn't sure what Daz was.
Grandpa tsked me. “Nonsense! One of a man's biggest joys in life is surprising his kids and his grandkids! Your ol' grandpa doesn't have many surprises left!” He nudged me with his elbow, doing his best to look pathetic and pouty.
I don't know about other grandfathers, but mine could dodge rattlesnakes and make homemade rafts from bamboo and dental floss if he needed to, so the whole “let-a-poor-old-man-have-his-fun” routine wasn't working on me. “Seriously! I could even help out if you told me! Ugh,
, you are not taking that thing home with you so get it out of your pocket!”
Grandpa helped Daz untangle the crocodile's mini claws out of the fabric of his shirt as she chirped in irritation.
“Tell you what,” Grandpa said, crossing his arms over his chest. “You can help out by going home right now and getting the four bags that are hidden in the front closet and bringing them by the polar bear tank in exactly ten minutes.”
“Ten minutes?” Daz perked up. The promise of a surprise was enough to make him forget his plan to smuggle out reptiles. “We get our surprise today?!” He started bobbing up and down with trademark Daz excitement.
Grandpa laughed. “If your sister here can get a move on,
!” He checked his watch. “You'd better hurry, actually. Party starts in about ten minutes, with or without you!”
I grinned. Despite being a total wackadoodle, Grandpa could be pretty fun. “Okay!” I said. “Four bags. Front closet. Polar bears!”
Grandpa narrowed his eyes, wagging his finger at me. “And
!” he added. “I mean it! I'm trusting you! That's why I'm not sending the Dazmanian devil here,” he muttered, slapping Daz on the back.
“Yeah, yeah,” I said, sticking out my tongue. “Promise!”
I waved good-bye to the crocodile hatchlings and headed out the door, feeling that anxious buzz of excitement that seemed to follow me around everywhere lately. Grandpa had first mentioned his surprise for us a few weeks ago, and despite our complaining, he'd actually managed to keep it secret. It was totally out of character, which made me even
nervous. Was it a trip to Hawaii? A new documentary he was starring in? Maybe he'd commandeered a spaceship and we were all going to spend a year on Mars.
didn't know what was up.
Hurrying home, I dodged the throngs of people milling about our yard. Our house was supposed to look like a decorative research station built near the lion pen in the African Pavilion, but to us, it was home for the summer while my parents did their research.
I was rounding the zebra pen when someone shrieked, her high-pitched voice echoing over the swarms of visitors. I whirled around at the noise.
“Hey, it's her!” A little girl pointed from a water fountain, her face lighting up like I had a “free ice cream” sign. “It's Ana Wright! That's her!
Two young girls rushed toward me. They waved madly while their mother snapped a picture. “Ana! Can we get a picture with you?” Their flip-flops slapped against the ground as they hopped in place.
I panicked, imagining what the pictures would look like.
hair! Not in this shirt! Gah, is that crocodile goop on my shoulder?
But the smiles on their faces were infectious. I forced myself to stand taller, digging inside for my bravery.
“Sure,” I said, waving them over to stand beside me.
I reached back to tighten my ponytail, hopefully pulling my style from “crocodile nanny” to something closer to “human almost-teenager.” I wished for the zillionth time that I looked more like Sugar, my grandpa's superhot girlfriend.
The girls looked about six or seven, both with shiny red cheeks from the hot sun. A green bag overflowing with gift shop stuffed animals was slung over their shoulders, and their zoo T-shirts were baggy on them. Their lips were stained with what looked like red Popsicle juice. Life was so
when you were a little kid. Not like the nonsense I had to put up with.
“We loved your presentation last month! I want to be you for Halloween this year! I got a hat from the gift shop and
!” The girl with strawberry blond hair was practically panting she was talking so fast. She dug into her bag and pulled out a crumpled hat, tugging it onto her head. “How cool is it that you're going to be in an actual
I smiled for another photo but felt the strain in my cheeks. “More like a documentary,” I said, gripping my nails into my palm. “But it is definitely crazy!”
There's an understatement.
It had been a few weeks since I'd been a part of the media circus at the zoo, filming my presentation for one of my grandpa's documentaries. Because of all the press about it, I was still getting recognized by some people. This is one of those ginormous changes I was talking about, and boy, was it taking some getting used to. Getting recognized in school was one thing. But while I was out wandering around the zoo? That's some level ten bizarro right there.
“Is it true that you're named after an anaconda? And that you're the youngest presenter here?” The one with black hair stared at me with wide eyes. She lowered her voice. “I read that online,” she whispered. Her sister nodded wildly.