Nine Days After the Fire
The day my mother exploded a copperhead snake with an elephant gun, I decided I was genetically destined to become a felon or a big game hunter. That was good, since I had tried ballerina, poet, artist, and musician, and I sucked at all of those.
Mom cleaned out a third of the water from our backyard pond with the snake shot, but that wasn’t the best part. “You flew backward up the hill seven whole feet.” I prodded her hip with my toe. “That was special. You should try out for the circus.”
The air smelled like spring flowers and gunpowder. Mom grunted and said something like “Crouton,” and something else that sounded like a swear word. She was probably trying to tell me to burn the snake’s carcass, because that’s what she did with all the snakes she killed.
“We don’t have to burn the snake,” I told her. “Nothing left of this one.”
Mom’s red hair splayed across the pine needles under her head, and her pretzel-shaped barrettes glittered in the sunlight. I couldn’t stand those barrettes. They looked like something little kids wore. A bruise was spreading across Mom’s shoulder and chest. The elephant gun lay in the holly bushes across the yard. Wicked. I couldn’t believe it flew that far. My BB gun Louise punched like a scared little sister when I fired her. Dad’s big rifle had to kick like a rhinoceros.
I was carrying Louise because Peavine and his sister Angel were on their way over so we could go searching for two kids who went missing after a fire, but I figured I should keep Louise out of Mom’s line of sight. I set her down behind me, careful to keep my hand on her barrel so I didn’t drop her in the grass. After that kickback, one look at a B-B gun might send Mom straight into a screaming fit.
Mom had on green eye shadow that matched her shirt and sandals and her brand-new bruise. The sandals had green sparklies, too, the same color as her eyes, which I couldn’t see because she kept squeezing them shut. “Dad’s gonna be ticked that you pried open his gun case,” I said.
“Crouton,” Mom mumbled. And then I realized she was trying to say, “Call you father,” except she couldn’t open her mouth all the way.
“It’s okay,” I told her. “I hear sirens. They might be after you, but Captain Armstrong’s in his running clothes, charging up and down the main road hollering INCOMING, so maybe it’s him they want.”
“Fontana. Call. Your father.”
“Fiiiine.” She just had to use my proper name. Blech. I pulled my phone out of my pocket and speed-dialed Dad while I asked her, “Aren’t you glad he won the fight about getting me a phone?”
Mom didn’t answer.
The phone rang twice before Dad picked up with, “Honey, you know I’m busy.”
I could hear people talking in the background because he worked as a dispatch officer in Bugtussle, Mississippi’s 9-1-1 call center. It was an important job, and a good one to have, with Mom as his wife and me as his daughter.
“Mom shot a copperhead with your old Nitro Express rifle,” I told him. “We’ll be picking snake guts off the roof for a year.”
It got so quiet on Dad’s end that I could almost make out what the other operators were saying. A lot of those calls were probably about the blast that just came from Sixty Erlanger Lane, because canon fire was unusual in our neighborhood. We lived on a nice cul-de-sac, in a big house with a basement that backed up to a pond in front of some woods. In Mississippi, all water had snakes, especially if it was muddy. Snakes didn’t care what kind of neighborhood you lived in.
Mom groaned and shifted on the ground. A piece of mangled copperhead blopped off a nearby pine branch, which would have grossed me out if I had been a normal girl, but I was so far from normal, it wasn’t even funny—except, of course, when it was.
“I’ll be right home,” Dad said. I waited for it, and a second later, it came. “I’m sorry, Footer. I know this has got to stop.”
*Edgar Award (Best Juvenile) 2016
*Junior Library Guild Selection
*Bank Street Best Children’s Book of the Year Selection Title
*Kansas State Reading Circle List Junior Title
A sensitive, suspenseful mystery that deftly navigates the uncertainty of mental illness. (Kirkus)
This tightly woven mystery also includes a tender friendship evolving into something more. (Booklist)
This contemporary mystery is compelling, offbeat, and fearless. (Horn Book)
Vaught . . . deftly portrays the pain of having a mentally ill parent, capturing Footer’s simultaneous love for and resentment of her mother, as well as her fears for her own sanity. The unusual and entertaining residents of Footer’s small Mississippi town bring moments of humor to a well-plotted mystery that effectively explores some serious themes. (Publishers Weekly)