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    Annie says that I have more flea-bites than her, but itís not true. She says that the fleas like my blood better. I asked her why, whatís so special about my blood, and she said itís younger. Fleas are especially fond of little kids, Annie says. I told her, youíre a kid too. But she says she isnít, because sheís already in the fifth grade and Iím only in the second. But school doesnít start until September, I said, so youíre actually still in the fourth grade. Annie says I donít know anything about anything. And anyway, the fleas donít care if Iím going to school or not. They prefer my blood, and thatís that.

    Mummyís always telling me not to scratch myself so hard. But I like it when the flea-bites turn into little wounds. Then they donít itch anymore. Mummy says if I do that, my whole body will be full of scars and I will look very ugly. Other kids will be afraid of me, she says. But theyíre already afraid. When we went to the public swimming pool with auntie Lisa last weekend, everyone stared at Annie and me. Mummy said, if somebody asks you whatís that on your skin, tell them itís not contagious. Whatís contagious, I asked, and mummy explained that if another kid would get my flea-bites just from touching me, that would be contagious. I later told mum that Iím contagious, because a girl sat on my towel and started scratching herself after a while, and I knew she had caught one of my fleas, but I didnít say anything. Mummy says thereís a difference if the girl catches my fleas or my flea-bites. And anyway, maybe the girl caught a flea from some other kid. You can never tell with fleas.

     Will we always have flea-bites, I asked mummy. She said no, itís just temporary. As soon as we return home to Patterson, weíll get rid of the fleas. And then the bites will heal in no time. I didnít understand why the fleas wouldnít want to come home with us. They already accompany us wherever we go here in Newfield: to the bakerís, the grocery-shop, the bus, the shopping mall, the public swimming poolÖ Mummy told me that the fleas only like to live in grannyís house, where weíre staying for the summer. She says that the fleas come from Skippy, but I donít believe it. Heís a small dog, he could never carry all these fleas. And he isnít even allowed into the living-room, the dining-room, granny and grandpaís bedroom, auntie Lisa and uncle Paulís bedroom, the basement room where mummy and daddy and Annie and I sleepÖ all those places that are filled with fleas, although thereís no dog around.

    Annie says itís not true that the fleas are everywhere. Auntie Lisa and uncle Paul, for example, never complain about flea-bites. And neither does grandpa, whoís always lying in his bed because he canít walk anymore. Annie says that the fleas have concentrated in the basement room because theyíre so mad about my blood. She says if I wasnít around, she and mummy and daddy could sleep all night long undisturbed by fleas. But Iíve seen uncle Paul scratching his leg while we were watching TV in the living-room the other evening. When I told daddy later on that uncle Paul had a flea in his trousers, daddy told me to mind my own business. Mummy said to him, you shouldnít talk like that to the kid, itís not her fault, and daddy said, well what do you want me to do, go talk to Paul about the goddamned flea in his trousers? Heís your sisterís fucking husband, so you talk to him, daddy said, and mummy got really upset and told him, if youíre so fed-up why donít you just leave. Then she started crying.

    I asked Annie, why does mummy cry so much lately, and Annie said that grandpa is very ill and this makes mummy sad. I havenít noticed any change in grandpa. For over a year now he has been paralysed in bed, watching TV or reading a book. The other day I sat on the edge of his bed and asked him what he was reading, and he told me itís a crime story. I asked him what happens in the story, and he said that a young woman is buried alive. After that I couldnít sleep at night, because every time I closed my eyes I thought I was under the earth and couldnít breath. When granny found out that I had nightmares because of grandpaís crime novels, she said I shouldnít believe what grandpa tells me, because heís senile. Whatís senile, I asked, and she explained that grandpa couldnít think straight anymore. I didnít understand what she meant, so I asked grandpa if heís senile, and he said no, heís just old and dying. Granny scolds him all the time because he doesnít tell her when he has dirtied his diapers in bed.

    Annie says that grandpa smells, and thatís why fleas donít like him. So I told mummy that maybe we should stop washing ourselves so long as weíre staying in grannyís house, to see if that keeps the fleas away from our beds, too. But mummy told me thatís nonsense, just look at Skippy, he only gets washed every two weeks, but heís still full of fleas. Poor Skippy, he scratches himself even more than I do. When I throw a ball for him outside in the yard, he can hardly chase it, because heís always disturbed by an itch. Granny says she hates Skippy, but sheís the only one who takes care of him. She combs his long hair twice a day and picks lots of fleas from his body, which she puts into a transparent plastic bag and hangs out in the sun. The fleas jump up and down in the plastic bag, until they get suffocated or scorched. Granny says itís the best way to kill them. Sheís tried drowning them, too, but fleas can swim. I wanted to bury them alive, but granny didnít let me because I would only ruin the garden and make myself dirty.

    Granny says, if it wasnít for this stupid dog, the house would never have been infested by fleas in the first place. Now they have built their nest in some secret corner and just keep hatching. If we could find that nest and destroy it, weíd get rid of all the fleas in no time, Granny told me. I know where the nest is. Itís behind this big, heavy cupboard just next to the sewing machine in grannyís little sewing room, which you can access via the kitchen. I know this because whenever I pass that room, I feel something tickling my ankles, and when I look down there are about ten or twenty fleas trying to climb up my legs, into my underpants. Thatís what fleas like the most, underpants. Because they can hide in the seams, mummy says. And because itís warm there, Annie says.

    Iíve told daddy that thereís a flea nest in grannyís sewing-room, and if he went there with some insecticide maybe he could destroy it. Daddy said itís not that simple, there are probably dozens of flea nests all over the house by now, what you need is a team of vermin killers. I asked who are they, and he explained that theyíre people specialized in getting houses rid of nasty little creatures like fleas. How would they do that, I asked, and daddy said they would spray every corner of every room with poisonous chemicals, to make sure that not a single flea would be left alive. But wouldnít that be bad for us, and for Skippy too, I asked. Daddy said it would, which is why we would all have to leave the house for at least a week. Also grandpa, I asked, and daddy said yes. But why, isnít he dying anyway, I asked, and daddy told me not to talk nonsense.

    Uncle Paul doesnít even want to hear about vermin killers, he says that this whole fleas story is an exaggeration. Maybe Skippy brings home an occasional flea, but thereís no such thing as a flea nest in his house. He says he knows this for a fact, because neither he nor his colleagues, who come over to his home office every Friday evening to play poker, have ever been bitten by a single flea. Annie says thatís because he never lets us into his home office. But Iíve been there once, secretly. Uncle Paul had forgotten to lock the door. It doesnít look like an office at all. There are these big, old armchairs and a round table made out of marble, and shelves full of old books. While I was sitting in one of the armchairs I had to scratch myself, but I couldnít tell if I had caught a flea in uncle Paulís home office, or if I had brought it in myself. I was afraid that the flea would jump onto the armchair and hide there and then bite one of uncle Paulís colleagues on Friday, and then everybody would know that I had sneaked into uncle Paulís home office. But I didnít want to leave too soon, because it was so nice to be all by myself. On a bottom shelf I found some magazines with drawings of naked people. I especially liked one about a woman who was a secret agent and travelled all around the world and met many men and undressed in front of them and sometimes killed them after they had kissed her. I took it to show Annie, but she didnít find the drawings interesting at all, she just told me to get rid of that thing and never mention a word of it to mummy and daddy. I didnít know how to get rid of the magazine, so Annie threw it over the hedge, into the neighbourís yard.

    The neighbour also has a dog, a black great Dane called Attila, as big as a horse, but he doesnít seem to bring home any fleas. Neither does the dog across the street, a poodle called Pam who always barks at us when we pass her gate. At least Iíve never seen any of the neighbours scratching themselves. Mummy says we shouldnít talk to the neighbours about the flea nests, because that would only cause unnecessary panic. I donít understand why the neighbours should panic. Weíve been living in the basement room with the fleas for almost two months now and weíve never panicked.

    The worst thing is when a flea bites you at night, while youíre trying to sleep. Then we have to get up, switch on the light, and search for the flea between our sheets. Itís not very difficult to find a flea in your bed, particularly if you have white sheets. You just have to learn to tell the difference between the little spots of blood left on the sheet and the black body of a flea. The other night Annie and I found a flea on our mattress, it was so fat that it couldnít even jump away, it made us laugh. I felt sorry for the flea when Annie picked it up and squeezed it between her fingers. We heard a ďpopĒ and when we looked at Annieís fingertips, they were covered in blood. She was disgusted because it was my blood, she said, but I could see fresh bites on her belly and arms and neck, so I called her a liar. She slapped me and I began to cry. Daddy yelled at us from the bed next to our mattress, if you two donít stop behaving like idiots and go to sleep at once, Iíll give you a real beating. Then daddy switched off the light again. I tried to fall asleep, but I could feel another flea biting my legs. I didnít want to upset dad, so I didnít ask him to switch on the light again and let me hunt the flea. I scratched myself all night long. When I looked for the flea in the morning, it was gone.

    Mummy makes me take cold showers several times a day, and then she rubs alcohol on my flea-bites. This helps them dry and itch less, she says. But she doesnít take cold showers herself. She says she doesnít need to, because sheís not bothered by her flea bites, sheís got other worries. Like what, I asked, and she said Iím too young to understand. So I asked Annie if she knew what mummy was so worried about, and Annie said itís because daddy got fired. Why did daddy get fired, I asked, didnít they like him anymore at the firm, and Annie told me that the whole firm has closed down and now daddy has to look for a new job. Annie says we will probably have to move to a new city. I wouldnít mind that, maybe we can finally buy a house with a garden, and then I can have my own dog. And cats. And bunnies. Mummy always told me that I couldnít have a pet in Patterson because we live on the tenth floor and have only a small balcony, which is totally filled with her flowerpots. She explained to me that animals need space to run around, like Skippy in grannyís yard. Itís not fair to force them to live in a block. But I think sheís just afraid that our pet would bring fleas into the block and then they would build their nests on all fifteen floors and everyone would blame us for their flea bites.  

    Mummy, what will daddy do if he doesnít find a job, I asked. She told me thereís no reason why daddy shouldnít find a job, it just takes a while. She promised that everything would be fine. Maybe weíll even move to Newfield, what do you think about that, she asked. I said it would be great. But we should get our own house, without any flea nests.

    Annie says sheís bored here in Newfield, all we do is ride our bicycles up and down grannyís yard, go for a walk with Skippy around the neighbourhood, watch TV in the living-room, and play in the attic. I donít find these things boring at all. The other day we went into auntie Lisaís dressing room when she was not around and borrowed some of her high-heeled shoes and handbags and make-up and played boutique. Annie was the saleswoman and I was the client. She showed me all the nice new clothes, and I asked her, how much is this, and how much is that. Annie says that when she grows up, sheís going to own a boutique, just like auntie Lisa. Only it will be much better. I asked her whatís wrong with auntieís boutique, and Annie said, itís not posh enough.

    Mummy got very angry when she found out that we had been to auntie Lisaís dressing room. She told Annie, youíre old enough to know better, donít you see that we have enough trouble around here. I donít understand why we have trouble. Maybe itís because auntie Lisa and uncle Paul also think that Iím the one attracting all the fleas into their house. They think Iím dirty and clumsy.

    Just this morning mummy and auntie Lisa had a big row because I dropped my glass of chocolate milk on the living-room carpet. I started crying, but mummy said, itís alright dear, these things happen, and she kneeled down to dry the carpet with her breakfast napkin. Auntie Lisa said, oh for Christís sake get up Donna, what are you doing there scrubbing like a fool, youíll never get those stains off the carpet. Mummy said, what the hell do you know about scrubbing, all these years you havenít done a single thing in this house, itís always mother who has to do the cleaning and cooking. Auntie Lisa said, what do you know about my efforts, you just come here for a couple of weeks, Iím the one who has to put up with mum and dad all year round. Mummy said, nobody forced you to take care of mum and dad, it was your decision to move in here, if youíre so sick of it, why donít you move out and Iíll stay here with the kids, we wouldnít mind at all. Auntie Lisa said, if we left the house in your hands, it would fall apart within a year, you people donít even manage to take care of yourselves, look at your kids, they always run around in filthy clothes. Mummy said, ha-ha-ha, donít tell me how to raise children, you donít even manage to take care of your flea-infested dog. And auntie Lisa said, we didnít have any flea trouble until you lot arrived. Mummy called her a bloody liar and walked out of the living-room with me. After that mummy and daddy and Annie and I took a bus to the shopping mall, had lunch there, went to the movies, looked at all the shop-windows, then had dinner and some ice-cream for dessert.

    Itís past eight oíclock when we return home. We go directly to our basement room. Annie and I are tucked under our sheets on the mattress next to the bed where mummy and daddy sleep, even though we arenít tired at all. Then mummy switches off the light and goes with daddy upstairs to the living room, where auntie Lisa and granny are watching TV. We can hear their muffled screams above us.

    Annie, are you sleeping, I ask, and she says, of course not. I tell her Iíve come up with a great plan. We should get dressed, sneak out of the house, kidnap Skippy and run away. But where would we go, Annie asks, we donít have any money or food or anything. I say weíll join the circus. Annie laughs and calls me crazy. What do you want to do in a circus, she says, they donít just take anybody, youíve got to have a talent, and clearly you have no talent. I tell her to shut up and listen. I have this plan, you see. What weíll do is, weíll build our very own flea-circus, using Skippyís fleas. I saw it on TV once, it doesnít seem all that difficult. Weíll catch lots of fleas and train them to juggle miniature balls and pull miniature carts and jump into miniature rings and play miniature football and make music on miniature instruments. Then weíll place our flea-circus next to the big circus tent and weíll invite visitors to watch the show using a magnifying glass. We will call it Skippyís Superb Jumping Fleas. Whenever we feel a flea biting us, we will catch it and add it to our circus, instead of killing it. Soon we will be able to sell trained fleas to other people wanting to start their own flea circus. Weíll make enough money to buy ourselves and Skippy nice hot sausages and ice-cream every day. And weíll travel around the world with our show. Weíll never have to go to school again. Never have to worry about jobs. Never have trouble with aunties and uncles again.

    So pack your things, Annie, and letís go.

     

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