Zinnia's Zaniness

Zinnia's Zaniness: Chapter 1

"Why so glum, chums?" asked Pete.

It was Friday morning, August 1, and we were all hanging around in the drawing room, doing nothing but slouching where we sat, except for Georgia, who was lying on her back on the floor, throwing a ball toward the ceiling and catching it, over and over again. Even the cats were slouching, except for Greatorex, who kept leaping upward in hopes of catching Georgia's ball.

Pete had entered a moment ago with Mrs. Pete. Mrs. Pete had her hair up in curlers while Pete was dressed in his work uniform of a navy blue T- shirt and dangerously low- slung jeans. He had his tool belt on.

We liked Pete's tool belt.

"We are not glum," Annie corrected him. "We are depressed."

"With good cause," Durinda added.

"Okay," Pete said. "Why are you depressed, then?"

"Because it is August," Georgia said, throwing her ball at the ceiling again.

"I don't understand," Pete said. "Isn't that a good thing? August means no more chance of Rebecca shooting fire from her fingertips and perhaps accidentally burning the house down around our ears."

"There is that," Jackie said in an attempt at optimism. But even she couldn't keep that up for very long. She sighed and added, "August seems so very long this year. A whole thirty- one days."

"But that's good, isn't it?" Pete tried again. "You have a whole month of summer vacation left before you go back to school."

"Our birthday is this month," Marcia said. "On August eighth, beginning at eight a.m., we will begin turning eight at the rate of one Eight per minute."

"I did remember that," Pete said. "But isn't that a good thing?"

We had to give Pete credit: he did keep trying.

"It is not," Petal said. "For the first time in our lives, Mommy and Daddy will not be with us on our birthday." A tear escaped Petal's eye then, but for once none of us moved to comfort her, not even Durinda or Jackie, because tears were beginning to escape all of our eyes.

"I see," Pete said softly.

"I miss having the ability to shoot fire from my fingertips," Rebecca said. "I know I made a promise not to use that power anymore unless necessary, but I miss just the very idea of that power."

"I thought I would be happy for it to be August," Zinnia said. "It being August means that it is my turn, finally, to get my power and my gift."

"Okay, now I'm sure that's a good thing." Pete tried yet again.

We were still willing to give him credit for persistence, but we did think it was time he got a clue gun.

He needed to just give up. Couldn't he see that we would not be cheered? That we could not be cheered?

"I will be the eighth Eight to get my power and gift," Zinnia said, "after which, according to that first note we found behind the loose stone, we will finally discover what happened to Mommy and Daddy when they disappeared."

"Or died," Rebecca added.

Yes, Rebecca was back to that again. Well, who could blame her for being in a dark mood? We were all in dark moods.

"Now, I know you will try to say that is a good thing, Mr. Pete," Petal said.

We looked at Pete standing there opening his mouth to speak, and we saw that Petal had been right: of course he was about to say that.

"Well, not a good thing if we're talking about what Rebecca said," Marcia corrected Petal. "Rather, you'll say that what Zinnia said is a good thing."

"The part about finding out what happened to Mommy and Daddy," Jackie said, just so we were all clear. "That's what you'll say is a good thing."

"The problem is," Georgia said, "we are at August first now but August is a whole thirty- one days. Oh, why couldn't August be a shorter month, like June or September? Really, the best thing would be if August were like February, only not during a leap year."

"Georgia's right," Durinda said. Things had to be pretty bad around here if Durinda was agreeing with Georgia. "I think I could bear to wait twenty-eight days to finally learn the truth," Durinda went on. "But waiting thirty- one whole days is really just too much. Then, too, there's always the question What if the answer is something truly awful? What will we do then?"

"We usually take a vacation in the summer," Annie said, bringing the conversational ball full circle. We'd begun with Annie and gone one by one down to Zinnia, then back up to Annie again. Sometimes we felt as though our talking was like other people practicing musical scales. "We usually take one in the winter over the holidays and another in the summer. But this summer there won't be one, not without Mommy and Daddy here."

"But what about the trip we took to France?" Pete said.

"That doesn't count as a real vacation," Annie said.

"We went there for a wedding, so it was more like a working holiday."

"You could still take a real vacation," a female voice said.

It took us a while to realize who that voice belonged to. We looked around at one another. Nope, that wasn't any of our voices. And it certainly wasn't Pete's. Then we realized it was Mrs. Pete. Pete had been hogging the conversation ball so much, we'd forgotten she was even in the room!

And because it took us a moment to identify the speaker and then another moment to get over our shock at who was actually speaking, it took a further moment for what she'd said to fully register.

"But we can't do that," Georgia objected.

"Of course we can't," Durinda said, once again, shockingly, agreeing with Georgia.

"We can go by ourselves to do a Big Shop," Marcia said.

"Or even a Really Big Shop if necessary," Jackie said.

"But we can't go on a whole vacation all by ourselves," Annie said.

"It is tempting, though," Rebecca said.

"Eight little girls on vacation all by themselves?" Zinnia said. "That would draw too much attention."

"Drawing attention is always a bad thing," Petal said. "Draw attention to yourself and before you know it, your jig is up. Nope. Sorry. No can do. Perhaps another year. Or better yet, never."

"I meant that we could take you on a vacation," Mrs. Pete said gently.

"We could!" Pete said, taking the conversational ball back from Mrs. Pete. Huh. We'd never noticed before how much more of the talking he did. Maybe it was a guy thing?

Georgia made a face at him. "But don't you have to work for a living?"

"I have read about that," Marcia said. "If a person is supposed to work for a living and he stops doing it for too long, it can be a really bad thing."

"We'd hate to see Bill Collector come after you, Mr. Pete," Petal said solemnly.

Poor Petal. She still believed that all bill collectors were called Bill Collector, even though the only person we'd ever met who was actually named Bill Collector had been very nice to us and hadn't taken any of our money at all.

"I am allowed to take a vacation from time to time," Pete said.

"Seems to me that all you ever do lately," Rebecca said, "is take time off from work."

"I don't think this is really the moment for that, Rebecca," Jackie pointed out. "When the Petes are kind enough to offer to take us on vacation, it hardly seems appropriate to point out Mr. Pete's recent lax work habits."

"I want to go on a vacation!" Zinnia said.

"Oh, I don't know about this," Petal said worriedly.

"Don't vacations sometimes end badly for people? If we stay home, we need never find out the answer to that question."

We ignored Petal.

"But if we did go," Annie said, "where would we go?"

"Yes," Georgia said, "where? After all, we've already been to Utah, the Big City, and France. What's left?"

The Petes thought about this for a long moment.

Well, who could blame them for needing time? It was a tough question. What was left?

"The Seaside!" Pete burst out excitedly.

"Oh, I've always wanted to go," Mrs. Pete said.

The Seaside.

Oh, that did sound heavenly.

Suddenly, despite how glum we'd been earlier, we could feel ourselves growing excited. We were daring to hope, daring to dream.

"How would we get there?" Annie asked.

That was Annie all over, we thought, always insisting on being practical.

"I'd suggest my flatbed pickup," Pete said, "but you might get wet if it rains, plus there are no seat belts back there, which is too unsafe for a long road trip, so we'll take your Hummer."

"Thank the universe," Petal said, heaving a little sigh of relief, "that at least someone is thinking of safety issues. And thank the universe that we won't be traveling by train or plane. I've had quite enough of those modes of transportation for the time being, thank you very much."

"When would we leave?" Annie said, still being practical.

"Tomorrow," Pete said decisively. "That'll give us today to pack and shop for anything we might need."

"Shopping," Annie mused, "that's good. There are some things I think we should bring with us."

"You mean like sunscreen?" Petal said. "And sunscreen with SPF one hundred for me so that I do not burn to a crisp from the Seaside sun's strong rays?"

"That too," Annie said with a disturbing air of mystery.

What could she be thinking of? we wondered.

"And how long will we be gone for?" Annie said, still being practical.

"We'll return on August ninth," Pete said, still decisively. "That way we'll be gone from Saturday to Saturday, a good length for any vacation, plus we'll be away from home for your birthday, so you won't have the sadness of celebrating your birthday here without your parents."

This sounded like a good idea to us. If we were somewhere else on our birthday, we wouldn't be constantly looking around the house and envisioning scenes of birthdays past when our parents had been with us. Still, just thinking of spending our birthday anywhere without our parents made us sad, so we took a moment to bow our heads.

"So," Pete said, after he'd given us sufficient time for our moment of sadness, "is everyone in agreement? Because we can't go if anyone objects."

"I agree!" Annie said.

"I agree!" Georgia said.

"I agree!" Jackie said.

"I agree!" Marcia said.

"I agree!" Petal said. Then she added, "But with grave reservations."

"I agree!" Rebecca said.

"I definitely agree!" Zinnia said.

Mrs. Pete turned to the one non-agreeing Eight.

"Durinda?"

"Just who exactly is going to be doing all the cooking on this so- called vacation?" Durinda asked suspiciously.

"We'll go out to eat a lot, I suspect," Pete said. "And if we stay someplace where we have our own kitchen and want to eat in from time to time . . . ?"

"I'll help you, Durinda," Jackie offered.

"We all will," six other Eights also offered.

"That sounds like too many cooks in my kitchen," Durinda said. "Still, I suppose I agree too."

"Yippee!" Zinnia said. "We're going on vacation!"

"But are you really sure you can take so much time off from work?" Rebecca asked Pete. "Won't your boss have some sort of objection?"

Oh, Rebecca.

"I am my boss!" Pete was upset. "Why do you think it's called Pete's Repairs and Auto Wrecking? So I think it's safe to say I can give myself the time off without firing me. As for all the cars in the area, they'll just have to refrain from breaking down or needing wrecking while I'm gone."

"Yippee!" Zinnia said. "We're going on vacation!"

"Why don't you all start packing," Annie suggested, "while I go put on my Daddy disguise so I can go shopping and pick up everything we need."

"What about the cats?" Zinnia asked Pete. Zinnia was referring to Anthrax, Dandruff, Greatorex, Jaguar, Minx, Precious, Rambunctious, and Zither, our eight gray and white puffball cats, one cat per Eight.

There was also Old Felix, the Petes' cat, who'd been living with us ever since the Petes temporarily moved in.

"Why, they'll come with us," Pete said. "We can't leave them home alone for a week. I'm sure we can find somewhere to stay that will be happy to have all of us and the cats too."

We weren't sure he should be so sure about that, but we didn't say anything, not wanting to rock the vacation boat.

"Yippee!" Zinnia said. "The cats are going on vacation too!"

We no longer felt glum at all, not even a bit. In fact, as we all hurried to the door so we could begin doing all we needed to do before going away, we were feeling very excited indeed.

"Wait a second," Marcia said, for some reason turning around. "What's that loose stone doing shoving itself a little ways out from the wall?"

We turned.

It was true. The loose stone was jutting out a bit. This, in our experience, could mean only one thing: a new note.

"But that makes no sense," Marcia said. "There should only be a new note if Zinnia has received her power or her gift, neither of which has happened yet." Marcia crossed the room and angrily pushed the loose stone back into place.

Marcia had had issues with the note leaver ever since Rebecca's month, when we'd discovered Rebecca had superhuman strength but a note to accompany that never came. Marcia went back and forth now between concern over the note leaver and anger at the note leaver.

"Silly note leaver," Marcia muttered, following the rest of us out of the room.

If she had turned then, if any of us had turned, we would have seen something that we could only have taken as ominous:

The loose stone had already popped itself back out again, as though it were trying to tell us something.

Good thing we didn't turn.