An Offer I Can't Refuse
Here's the thing no one tells you about monkeys: They steal your cereal every chance they get. Lucky Charms, Cocoa Puffs, Froot Loops, Trix, Gorilla Munch—even the boring ones like Grape-Nuts—drive my capuchin monkey, Frank, out of his mind. He's like a castaway finally on dry land who can't wait to eat everything in sight. I hate keeping him locked in his cage while I eat in front of him every morning, but on the days I let him out, the kitchen ends up looking like a rainbow war zone with flakes and nuggets all over the floor. My mutt, Bodi, is much more well behaved, waiting patiently for me to measure out his food and place it in his bowl near the bookcase.
"How about some chocolate chip pancakes?" my dad asks.
I say yes, mainly so I can take Frank out of his cage. (Frank is not a fan of pancakes.)
My dad hasn't worked for the last two months, so he's on kitchen patrol. He's been a freelance storyboard artist for decades, but the movie industry's in a slump and it's been hard for him to find new work. Luckily, my mom's a vet, so they've still been able to pay the bills. The good news is my father has started experimenting with some great new recipes. The bad news is he's taken an even greater interest in my homework.
Since I was little, the best way for me to learn my vocabulary words was to draw them. I have notebooks and notebooks and notebooks filled with illustrations of stick figures acting out all my school words. My parents have always inspected my work, but these days Dad puts each drawing under a microscope.
"Are you sure that's the best definition of inquire?" He traces my illustration with his finger.
"Shouldn't we add more chocolate chips to the batter?" I ask, changing the subject.
My dad throws another handful of chips into the bowl. "If you want to continue with your art, you have to get every detail right. Believe me, I know."
Now I wish I'd just had cereal. Sweeping up Cap'n Crunch is ten times better than listening to Dad reflect on his old jobs. I hope he gets a new one soon—I'll miss the pancakes but not the sad stories.
"Hey, I forgot to tell you," Dad says. "I got an email from one of the guys at Global Games, where I did some work last year. He asked if I knew any kids who might be interested in testing some new software." He gently places three pancakes on my plate.
"Are they looking for kids to test video games?" I shout.
My dad pours himself a second cup of coffee. "Does that mean you're interested?"
I don't even bother with the maple syrup, just roll the pancakes into a log, yell good-bye to my dad, and race to school to share the news with my friends.
WE'RE GOING TO TEST VIDEO GAMES!
My Friends Go Nuts
The mention of taking part in a video game study makes Matt ricochet off the walls with expectation. He's talking so loud and fast that Ms. Miller sticks her head out of the classroom to tell him to be quiet. Matt lowers his voice but is still excited.
"They want us to test video games before they're released? We'll probably be locked in a secret room and have to sign a form that says we'll keep everything confidential." He's whisper-shouting so close to my face, I can smell his peppermint toothpaste. "Wait until Umberto hears about this. Carly too."
"Hears about what?"
Matt and I whip around to see Carly standing behind us. She's wearing her T- shirt from surf camp with a hyena riding a giant wave. Matt gestures for me to tell Carly the news, and I do. As soon as I finish, Umberto screeches over in his wheelchair, so I repeat the story one more time.
I don't know about my friends, but I can barely concentrate on schoolwork for the rest of the day. (Not that I'm good at staying on task the rest of the time.) Ms. McCoddle leads a spirited debate about the American Revolution, but I listen to only every other word. What if we get to help name the new video game? Will we be listed in the credits?
"What do you think, Derek?"
When I wake from my daydream, Ms. McCoddle is standing beside my desk.
"Um ... the people in Boston wanted coffee instead of tea?"
I pray my answer ties in somehow to what the class has been talking about, but by the look on Ms. McCoddle's face, it doesn't. She crosses her arms in front of her chest. With her black-and-white-striped shirt, she looks like an unhappy referee.
"No, Derek. Paul Revere was a silversmith. But maybe he liked to hang out at his local Starbucks to get some of that coffee you mentioned." Several of my classmates laugh, so Ms. McCoddle keeps going. "Do you think Paul Revere was an espresso kind of guy, or do you think he preferred Frappuccinos?"
All I want is for my teacher to walk back to her desk, but of course she doesn't.
Matt chimes in to bail me out. "Paul Revere definitely needed caffeine to make that midnight ride."
Umberto shakes his head because I got caught not paying attention yet again. Carly laughs as Matt continues his "the British are coming" spiel.
Ms. McCoddle arches her eyebrow and finally moves on, which is great because I want to get back to thinking about new video games.
Here She Comes to Wreck the Day
All my mother wants to talk about is the house call she made this afternoon to take care of two sick peacocks. In her vet practice, she usually doesn't get to work with exotic pets, so when she has a chance to examine a bobcat or a lemur, she grabs it.
I want to talk about Global Games but my mother's acting like someone on one of those hoarding shows, except what she's hoarding is the conversation.
"They actually keep peacocks on the farm to calm the horses. Maybe it's the color or the plumage, but it seems to work." She looks dreamily out the kitchen window. "They're such a beautiful blue."
It seems like my whole life is spent listening to grown-ups drone on about stuff I'm not interested in. On the scale in my mind, I try to decide which topic is worse: Paul Revere or peacocks. As my mother continues babbling, I picture Paul Revere riding through the streets of Boston on a peacock, warning people about the British. Bodi must be bored with my mom's conversation too, because he snuggles alongside my leg underneath the table.
Just as I'm about to interrupt my mom's story, she switches subjects. "Dad says it's time for a new reading tutor, and I think he's right."
"Then I guess you guys should get one," I answer.
"Very funny," she says. "But I believe he was talking about you."
When you add them all up, I've had more reading tutors than babysitters. On one boring afternoon last year I made a list and rated them from #1 (Kimberly, who looked like a runway model) to #12 (Mrs. Gainesville, who smelled like mothballs and mildew). The thought of adding yet another tutor to the list makes me want to bludgeon myself with the mallet my mother uses to pound chicken breasts. I'm about to loudly protest when she shows me a picture on her phone.
"Her name is Hannah. She is majoring in political science at UCLA and coaches several kids your age in reading. She has very good references."
I look at the photo, not focusing on the girl's smile or black glasses, but on her Pac-Man T-shirt. It's a nice transition to tell my mom about the video game opportunity.
"That's great," she says. "Do you think your friends can join you?"
I tell her I hope so because they're already counting on it. "Sounds like fun—after you meet Hannah and get started on your reading."
Where's that mallet?
To say I bug my dad about calling his colleague at Global Games is an understatement. First I ask him every ten minutes, then I text him every five. When he stops answering me, I know I have to get more creative, so I use my markers and make a banner that reads, WE ARE READY TO TEST VIDEO GAMES. When that doesn't work, I take the batteries out of all the remotes, knowing Dad will open the junk drawer to get new ones. A long paper accordion falls out of the junk drawer that says, PLEEEEEEAAAAAASSSEE!!!!!!! I'm kind of surprised that ploy didn't work, so I write on the windshield of his car with soap. Unfortunately, I use my mother's special eczema soap that you can only get with a prescription. Double unfortunately, each bar of soap costs forty-eight dollars. It's difficult figuring out which parent is angrier. As they face me down, I decide it's a tie for first place.
"I'm not sure video game testing is in your future," my mom begins.
My father tosses me a large sponge. "I'll tell you what IS in your future—washing my car."
Frank gets the sponge before I do and starts tossing it into the air. I yank it out of his hands before he tries to eat it.
"Being in the focus group will help with all kinds of skills," I plead, realizing a new way out of my dilemma. "There'll be so much READING—reading manuals, reading instructions. It'll be like having months of tutoring for free." This last part is an appeal to my mother, who's the biggest bargain hunter I know. I've seen her pull the car over several lanes of traffic when she spotted her favorite clogs on sale for half price.
I bite my tongue and wait for their decision. My mother and father look at each other, then my mother lets out a long sigh. "You can apply for the video game testing—if and only if you focus on your reading too."
I start to leave but my father blocks me at the door.
"The bucket's in the garage," he says. "And don't forget the sponge."
I try to sneak Frank outside to "help," but my mother already has him back in his cage. It would be more fun to wash the car with a monkey but I can't complain.
Video games, here I come!
Umberto Is the Ringer
My friends bug me ten times more than I nagged my dad to get details on the focus group. When I finally have the info to share, I'm both happy and relieved.
"My dad's friend says the session starts this Saturday, from ten to three."
"I'm going to rule this game!" Matt seems awfully confident, especially since we don't know who else will be there.
Carly shakes her head. "You forget how good I was at FarmVille," she says. "You couldn't even figure out how to grow crops."
Now it's Umberto's time to disagree. "I've been designing apps for the past year in that after-school computer class. I know how these programmers think."
It suddenly dawns on me that the three friends I've invited to join me could trounce me with their gaming skills. For a brief moment, I get the urge to call the whole thing off but realize I'll be tarred and feathered if I do. I have to get used to the fact that I'll probably be at the bottom of the pack. Again.
"Hey, Derek," Matt says. "Don't you think it's funny they want you and me in a FOCUS group?"
I'd feel bad he was making fun of me if what he was saying wasn't 100 percent true.
I hold out my hand for Umberto's phone and ask to see the new app he just finished. The four of us spent hours playing his first one, a really fun bowling game. This new app features a samurai warrior with a saber, slicing pepperoni with lightning speed and flinging the slices onto pizza dough, all the time avoiding dastardly cheese graters.
"You're really good at this," I tell Umberto as I swipe my finger across the touch screen. "Maybe you'll end up getting a job at Global Games someday."
Matt agrees, but Carly's already onto the next thing, going through the papers in her folder. (They're organized and color coded, of course.)
"The state tests are in a few weeks," she says. "We're really going to have to study."
Matt, Umberto, and I stare at her blankly. We're talking about video games, and she's bringing up state tests?
"I'm not kidding," she continues. "Those tests are serious business."
"Don't be such a bummer," Matt says. "We're testing video games on Saturday!"
Carly shoves the papers into her pack. As she heads to class, she shoots me a look from the corner of her eye, and I know she brought up the state tests because of me. Carly's always been concerned about my reading disability. She's tried to help me study in the past, but our tutoring sessions usually end in mutual frustration. I hate to admit it, but I've been worried about the state tests since Ms. McCoddle told us about them a couple of weeks ago. (Yes, I do pay attention sometimes.) Maybe my parents are right and it IS time for another reading tutor, as long as she doesn't take any time away from my top priority—testing video games.
I'm a Little Worried About Dad
When I get home from school, I'm shocked to find a drop cloth, buckets, and rollers all over the kitchen floor. Half the kitchen walls are covered with new wallpaper featuring blue sea horses and bubbles. My father's T-shirt and jeans are splattered in wallpaper paste.
"Um ... does Mom know about this?" I ask.
"It's a surprise," Dad answers. "She always hated these boring beige walls." I point to one of the sea horses, whose head and tail are not lined up. "I think this is bathroom wallpaper."
"Of course it is," Dad says. "But you know how your mother loves the unpredictable."
Mom may enjoy the unpredictable when it comes to wearing wacky shoes and healing peacocks, but I don't know how she's going to feel about staring at uneven sea horses while making lasagna.
"How's the job hunt going?" I ask.
My dad slathers a sheet of wallpaper with paste. "Really great. Lots of leads to follow up on."
My mom walks in, carrying three bags of groceries. A long baguette sticks out of one of the bags, almost jabbing her in the mouth, and I wonder how she got from the car to here without nibbling on it. She looks around the messy kitchen, then smiles kindly at my dad.
"Jeremy, how fun!"
My father holds out his arms, showing off the room. "It'll look great once I clean everything up." He wipes his hands on his jeans and goes out to get the rest of the groceries. Before I can say anything, my mother runs her hand along the crooked seam of the wallpaper.
"Sea horses in the kitchen? Your father's got to get a job soon."
For once, my mom and I are in complete agreement.
Mom unpacks the groceries and tells me that Hannah is on her way over for our first tutoring session.
"But we didn't even interview her yet!"
"I interviewed her while you were at school," Mom says. "She's very qualified." Mom puts several bags of pasta in the cupboard. "If you don't like her, we can talk about getting someone else."
My usual tactic would be to argue, but I'm hoping this tutor might be one of the good ones. I know you're not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but no one said anything about judging people by their T-shirts. Not to mention the fact that I need all the help I can get if I'm going to pass those state tests.
My father resumes his wallpapering; my mother gives encouragement, but then hurries to her office next door so she doesn't have to witness the crazy mess that is now our kitchen.
I ask Dad if I can take Frank out of his cage, but both he and I know that's inviting trouble while the room's in such disarray. Instead, I let Bodi out of the den and grab a slice of leftover turkey and head to the backyard. I've got an hour till the new tutor comes, so I settle into my favorite spot near the jasmine against the fence to partake in my favorite activity.
Sitting with my dog, doing nothing.
The young woman on the front steps extends her hand. "My name is Hannah Yee, but you can call me Hannah Banana."
"Do I have to?"
She laughs. "The last student I tutored called me that."
"Was he three years old?"
She laughs again, too loud for the quality of my joke. "No. She was sixteen and aced her SATs. You should be so lucky."
Hannah is the only person I've ever seen in real life wearing suspenders, but her sneakers are custom pro skateboard shoes, so she looks cool. I realize I might actually be out of my league.
"Whoa! Who's that?" Hannah's face fills with delight when she spots Frank, and she bulldozes past me to get to his cage in the kitchen.
I explain that we're Frank's foster family and he's living with us until he goes to Monkey College. Before she can ask me what Monkey College is, I tell her Frank comes from an organization in Boston that trains capuchin monkeys to help the disabled.