The next day, I found out Muffy was grounded. So I went on the roam to find my other friends. The ones I knew so well that it was like we were littermates, all of one body, quibbling and playing incessantly like puppies. I knew my littermates like I knew myself. Their smells were right to me. Audrey smelled like summer: chlorine and cola. Cee smelled sweet and mysterious like vanilla and smoke; Stacy smelled like hay and cinnamon sugar. Stacy had a pack of grape Now n Laters she was sucking on. Cee had a pocketful of green apple Jolly Ranchers. The day before, we had played dodge ball and Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Board until dark. Then we had all taken a bath together and I showed them how I scrubbed my feet with Bon Ami and a brillo pad. Mrs. had burst in on us and had a conniption.

I never met Audrey and Clarissa. Uncle Zack teased us that when we were babies, we slept in a circle and sucked each other’s thumbs. We tried it once, but Audrey’s thumb was dirty and Clarissa kept biting mine, so we decided that was untrue.

Mom told me that Clarissa and Audrey’s Mom, Mrs., had moved to Tulsa after a messy divorce when we were all small and Mrs. made friends with Mom-which consisted of Mrs. following Mom around as Mom worked in our house and Mrs. lecturing about the faults of society at large and how Mrs. simply must get away to Cap D’Antibes again, to Cinqueterre, or Rio. Everyone in the neighborhood, including my mother, was scandalized by a divorced woman. Divorcees were supposed to be ‘hot to trot’, an expression that puzzled me greatly. I watched Mrs. carefully for any evidence of her turning into a perspiring equine. Mrs. was considered dangerous and she thrived on that reputation.

The only way I knew Audrey and Clarissa and I weren’t quite the same was that Mrs. never hit me. Oh, she longed to, even I could see that and it gave me grim satisfaction because I never understood what it was about me that she yearned to strike. She might grab my arm, drag me, or even shake me; and she certainly cursed me regularly with her favorite choice words, but being another woman’s child stopped her short.

There was that one time, when Mrs. snapped and I suffered blows, but they had all been meant for Audrey and I was just in the way. I believe it was an honest mistake.

It was happened when having gerbils for pets were all the rage and everyone bought a few. Even Cee, who was widely known not to be of this earth but floating above it, willowy and graceful like a ballerina, humming and thinking deep thoughts, was charmed enough to ask for one. She had never before expressed interest in the animal kingdom, whereas I couldn’t live without animals, but Cee loved her gerbil dearly. She even carried Mr. Nibbles with her in a quilted box purse. We would gather round and say, “Ahhh,” collectively as we all peered inside. Now and then, one of us would crack open her purse to check on him and he seemed content, chewing on a treat or napping.

One time, Cee put Mr. Nibbles in her purse and didn’t give him anything to eat and then forgot he was in there.

We played wild that day, spinning in circles, crazy tag for hours and even keep away with Cee’s purse. Finally exhausted and in a panting, sweaty heap, we all saw Mrs. crossing the street towards us. We stood in a line together, facing her, trying to be ready for anything.

“You kids want to get some ice cream?” she asked. We all screamed, jumping and laughing.

“Shut up! Get your shoes on. Get in the car,” Mrs. ordered gruffly, turning and striding away.

Stacy pounded across our yards to go ask permission and to get money. “Hurry and ask your Mom!” she shouted at me as she ran.

“I don’t need to ask,” I answered proudly. But I was worried about money. “I’ll be back.” I disappeared into the empty house, looking for change. I couldn’t find any. I searched everywhere: beneath the foam rubber couch cushion, in my father’s pants pockets, my mother’s dresser, the office desk, Uncle Zack’s room, the car ashtray. I heard honking. That was Mrs. and she never waited. With mounting desperation, I went to my room and grabbed a tiny teddy bear, all of two inches high. Surely he was worth something.

I ran outside and climbed into the back seat. Audrey and Stacy were already there and they had each called windows, so I wedged in between them. Cee and her purse were up front.

Audrey began walking her fingers up my leg. Then Stacy did too. I played along. Soon, we were characters talking in funny voices and laughing. Cee got on her knees and turned around in her seat to see. Mrs. swatted her smartly. “Sit down!”

Cee slumped in her seat, fuming.

“The rest of you! Quiet back there! Jesus, give me a minute’s peace! Stacy!” Mrs. barked. Stacy winced. “Do you have money?”

“Yes ma’am,” Stacy said meekly.

“Zelda, do you have money?”

All was silent in the car. I leaned forward and tapped Mrs. on the shoulder. “Whaaaat?” she said angrily. Then she honked. “Learn to drive, you asshole!” She gave another driver the finger. “I’ve got kids in here, for Chrissake,” she muttered. I perched my bear on her shoulder, not certain I wanted ice cream this much. The bear was hot from my clutch and I worried Mrs. would hurt him. He didn’t have a smart mouth like I did. He couldn’t fight back. But it was too late now, I had already started it. Mrs. reached up and took my tiny bear in her hand and glanced at it in her palm. Cee looked at it and then at me. I dropped my eyes. I wiggled as close to Mrs.’ ear as I could, hoping no one else would hear.

“That’s my money,” I whispered.

Mrs. nodded and pocketed my bear. I sat back, gritting my teeth, my eyes stinging. I rubbed them hard. When I looked up, I noticed Mrs. smiling and gazing at me in the rear view mirror. I watched the scenery pass.

The silence was broken when Cee fumbled with her purse. “Oh, I just remembered that Mr. Nibbles was in here the whole time!” she cried, struggling to open it.

Audrey, Stacy and I looked at each other with solemn surprise.

“Is he okay?” Stacy sat forward to see.

“Sit back!” Mrs. yelled. Stacy flushed and Audrey stuck her tongue out at Mrs.’ head.

“Are you all right, Mr. Nibbly Wibbly? My widdle biddy baby?” Cee sang to the exterior of the purse. I rolled my eyes. Audrey slapped my knee. Stacy had her arms crossed.

“Hey!” Cee screeched when her hot, sticky fingers finally opened her purse.

“Shut up, Clarissa Sue!” Mrs. ordered gruffly. I wondered what she would call Stacy when Stacy would get scolded.

“But he chewed up everything!” Cee sifted through her purse where Mr. Nibbles crouched warily in one corner. “My little stuffed dog!” Cee held in her fingertips a knot of finely ground colored lint. She let it sprinkle in her lap. “Mr. Nibbles, you are bad! You’re a bad, bad gerbil!” Cee told him. He watched her with bubble-shiny eyes.

“My money!” Cee cried. “Mama, he chewed up all my money!” She held a pile of green fluff in her palm.

“Serves you right,” Mrs. said stoically without even glancing at her daughter. “God knows what that poor rat has been through today.”

Cee sniffed her purse. “And he peed!”

“That’s what gerbils do. What did you expect?” Mrs. honked at another driver. “Jackass!” She put her thumb to her nose and wiggled her fingers. Stacy and I looked at each other, mystified. Stacy tried it herself.

“Stacy Marie!” Mrs. snapped, her flashing eyes glared at Stacy in the rear view. Stacy jerked. “Don’t you ever do that again!” Stacy replaced her hands primly in her lap.

Audrey crouched behind the driver’s seat and put her thumb on her nose and wiggled her fingers. We stifled giggles as we watched her.

“Audrey, goddammit, sit back!” Sit back and stay there, now!” Mrs. yelled.

“Mama,” Cee wailed, “Everything is ruined! My purse is ruined!” She sniffled. “I hate you, Mr. Nibbles!” Mr. Nibbles remained still, as if innocent, and blinked in the light.

Audrey snorted and pinched her nose closed. She dug me in the ribs with her elbow. Her eyes were squeezed shut and her body was vibrating. Little pressurized squeaks were escaping her clamped lips. I leaned on her trying to cover her body and smother her giggles, but just looking at her struggling not to laugh got right under my skin like tickling feathers. I held my breath and thought about the dentist.

Stacy scooted up to look over Cee’s shoulder. She surveyed the situation. “He must’ve been grinding through that stuff for hours, like a beaver on speed,” she pronounced gravely.

Audrey and I exploded. It was laugh or die. Cee started crying. Stacy looked at us and her serious face melted into mirth. Mr. Nibbles watched everything from his nest of destruction.

“It’s not funny! It’s not funny!” Cee wept.

“Damn right it isn’t!” Mrs. swerved the car a little. “Shut up! Shut up back there!” she ordered furiously. We were hysterical. Mrs. began swatting backwards in large, sweeping arcs, hoping to silence us with slaps. Trying to dodge her just made it funnier. Audrey was stomping the car floor. I was panting for air. Stacy was holding her stomach.

“Stop, I’m gonna pee,” Stacy kept repeating in a wavery falsetto that would just set us off again.

“Beaver on speed,” Audrey muttered in between fits. It was so funny even though I wasn’t sure what it meant.

“Shut! Up! Shut! Up!” Mrs. punctuated her words with vicious little punches while she struggled to drive.

Cee was sniffling and softening to Mr. Nibbles. “I wuv oo, do oo wuv me?” she murmured tenderly. Cee picked him up and nuzzled the gerbil to her face. Then, she screamed, splitting our ears and cutting off our laughter abruptly. Mrs. jerked the car to a different lane. She glanced with fury at Cee, preparing to blister her with curses.

“Oh, for God’s sake,” she snapped with disgust when she turned to look at her daughter.

“What? What?” Audrey struggled to see. We all leaned forward when Cee didn’t stop screaming.

The gerbil had sunk his teeth into Cee’s nostril. His tiny feet and tail swung from her nose like an ornament. Cee’s eyes were closed as she screamed, her hands flapped like stubby wings. Then, Cee grasped Mr. Nibbles and tugged on him, but that just gave him fresh stubborn strength. Her screams rose off the scale as she carefully pulled and he tightened, digging in and getting better settled. We had one look at that angry gerbil locked on to Cee’s nose and we sat back in horror. Then, Audrey covered her face in her hands and her shoulders shook. Next, I cracked up. After me, Stacy busted out.

“Shut the fuck up or I’ll make all of you walk home!” Mrs. yelled. She tried to catch Audrey’s hair in her fist but couldn’t. Audrey was fast and experienced. “I mean it, you brats!”

We didn’t care. This was the best thing to happen to us, ever. We were uncontrollable and our bodies were loose and slidy. We hammered the seats, rolled against each other, we couldn’t even sit up. We were a volatile girlbrew, limbs akimbo, all of us tangled together. Audrey kicked her feet in the air. My belly ached. Stacy kept begging weakly, “stop it, stop it,” while tears streamed down her face.

Mrs. swung the car on to the shoulder lane and slammed to a stop. The three of us in the back were catapulted to the floor in a helpless jumble, still laughing. I got a glimpse of Cee lurching forward and Mr. Nibbles swinging wide from her nostril and hitting her face on the return. Cee shook her head, her face white. Mr. Nibbles shook with her, his tail looking like metronome. “I’m used to it now. It doesn’t hurt so much,” she gabbled as Mrs.’ hand came inexorably forward. “No, Mama, don’t, don’t!”

Mrs. grabbed Mr. Nibbles firmly and plucked him from Cee’s nose without further incident. Cee screamed to shatter glass and grabbed her face. Mrs. tossed the gerbil out Cee’s open window. We were parked next to an open field and we all watched Mr. Nibbles run away through the grass.

Cee resumed crying, and clutched her bloody nose. A drop had landed on the dash and glittered like a ruby in the sun. No one wiped it off.

 “You’ll have to get a tetanus shot,” Stacy remarked, breaking the tense silence.

That set us off again. Mrs., fresh from her victory over the gerbil, turned around and smacked each of us hard on the head and then she sped the car back into traffic amidst a chorus of honking. “Learn to drive, you creep!” she cried.

Cee looked mournfully at us just once, cupping her nose with bloody hands, her sad, dreamy eyes red and streaming, before locking her jaw and facing forward grimly.

After awhile, we noticed we were heading back to the neighborhood.

“Hey! What about the ice cream?” Audrey whined. Cee shot Audrey a black look.

Mrs. stopped in front of my house and ordered us out. I stood, feeling shaky and so cheated.

“I have to take Clarissa Lou to the doctor.”

Audrey started to follow Stacy and me.

“No, Audrey Blue, you come with me.” Mrs. ordered sternly. As she screeched off, she threw my tiny bear out of the window where he bounced on the asphalt. My last glimpse of them that day was of Audrey’s miserable face pressed against the smeary car window, her index finger waving goodbye.

My littermates, we were like identical flowers in a row.