Chapter 1 Chapter 1
Give Freddy a Better Life.”
It was January when Georgia Weathers wrote that note and taped it to the side of Freddy’s tank. Now, somehow, it was June. The ink had faded, the paper had curled. Freddy’s life was not better. And if Patty van Winkle just said what Georgia thought she said, then things were about to get worse.
Georgia’s best friend, Maria Elena Garcia, stood beside her at the Pet Stop pet shop. Maria lifted her eyebrows, poked up her glasses, and frowned around the pen between her teeth.
Georgia swallowed hard. “Did you say… hissing… cockroaches?”
“Ay Dios mío,” Maria muttered as she pushed aside a lock of black hair that dropped as if in shock across her cheek. Maria’s family was from Mexico, on her father’s side. Her mother was from Mexico, too—the town of Mexico, Maine! Maria liked to copy her grandmother’s dramatic expressions when circumstances called for them.
“Correct!” said Patty van Winkle. “There’s a tristate shortage of crickets.”
Maria popped the pen from her mouth, flicked her hair back, and flipped open a small, spiral-bound notebook. “Innnteresting,” she muttered. “Definitely jot-worthy.” Maria declared many things interesting and jot-worthy. Many things caused Maria’s dark eyes to sharpen behind the pink plastic frames of her eyeglasses. She longed to be a writer of romance, or possibly suspense.
“Don’t you worry, Georgia,” Patty van Winkle said. “Bearded dragons aren’t as picky as you’d think. Freddy will gobble ’em right up. No problem. Right as rain. A bug’s a bug.”
Georgia felt a bobble in her chest. It felt—gulp—like a bug. Why was it that cockroaches seemed infinitely worse than crickets? And hissing cockroaches seemed much worse than regular, non-hissing ones. “I have to think about the… the nutritional alternative.”
“All righty, then.” Patty put a box of what were almost certainly cockroaches onto the counter as if Georgia didn’t have any choice about buying them, which, she supposed, she didn’t. “You’ll see,” Patty said, “cockroaches will suit Freddy’s reptilian palate. They’ll warm his cold-blooded heart.”
Blythe—Georgia’s mother—had always been fond of surprises. The day Georgia got Freddy, Patty van Winkle had accepted delivery of a bearded dragon by mistake. “The Pet Stop does not handle this sort of unique, one-of-a-kind exotic creature,” Patty told Georgia’s mother that day. They all three stared at the baby lizard, with his warty hide and a jagged edge of spines along his throat. “I’ll be shipping him back, pronto.”
“Oh no you will not, Patty van Winkle.” Georgia’s mother had knelt before Georgia in the pet shop. Blonde curled hair fell shining to her shoulders. Her coral-pink lipstick had gotten onto her teeth, which Georgia could plainly see because of how her mother was smiling in a big way that made Georgia feel strange in her stomach, as if she’d swallowed an ice cube whole. Blythe’s cotton dress was crisp and pretty under her pink cardigan sweater, and it had little buttons all up and down the front, from the collar to the hem above the knee. “I am determined to purchase this exotic creature for my daughter,” her mother had said, “to have and to hold.”
“She ain’t gonna marry it, Blythe,” said Patty.
Blythe smiled, cupping Georgia’s chin. “This lizard represents my love for you.”
“Cold-blooded?” said Patty.
Blythe stared straight into Georgia’s eyes. “Undying,” she said.
“Says here”—Patty was scanning a pamphlet marked The Care and Keeping of Your Bearded Dragon—“they live eight to fifteen years in captivity. What do you suppose happens after that?”
Blythe’s eyes narrowed, and she sliced a glare at Patty. “Eight years, fifteen years—who cares? It’s a lifetime.” She turned back to Georgia. “It’s forever.” Then she kissed Georgia’s cheeks, smack-smack, and stood up. “Georgia,” she said, “you will remember this day.”
Georgia remembered, all right. That was the day Blythe left town with Lyle Lenczycki.
Now a clacking, shifting, scrabbling noise came from the cardboard box. A noise like pebbles shifting underfoot, pulled by a wave at the beach. Georgia sighed, although Blythe had always frowned on sighing: “You sound like a little old lady at all of eight and a half.” Georgia was eleven now, and had gone on to sigh many times. Sighing cooled her internal worry machine.
Hissing cockroaches. Freddy’s life was definitely worse.