Listening for Crickets

Listening for Crickets

by David Gifaldi


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With ears like a bat and webbed toes, it seems as if ten-yearold Jake could fly right out of reality into the freedom of his dreams. No more worries about asthma, special reading class, or his parents' fighting—just sky. But Jake can't simply fly away. There's his little sister, Cassie, to tell stories to when the night sounds become frightening, amazing facts to learn from his best friend Luke, and a safe place—Dragon's Nest—to build in the backyard.

This beautifully written middle grade novel tells the courageous story of Jake—a night watchman—a protector in the truest sense of the word who finds hope in crickets, friends, teachers, and dreams.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780805097405
Publisher: Henry Holt and Co. (BYR)
Publication date: 04/29/2008
Pages: 192
Sales rank: 775,018
Product dimensions: 4.90(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.50(d)
Age Range: 9 - 13 Years

About the Author

DAVID GIFALDI is a fifth-grade teacher and the author of several novels for young readers. He is also on the faculty of the MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program at Vermont College. He lives in Portland, Oregon.

Read an Excerpt

Listening for Crickets

By David Gifaldi

Henry Holt and Company

Copyright © 2008 David Gifaldi
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-62779-678-1


ONE OF MY best dreams ever. A flying dream. Me, Jake Wasniewski, with wings like a megabat, a flying fox. Powerful wings. Only these aren't brown. They're blue. And sparkly. A single stroke shoots me into an updraft, my stomach racing to keep up. Farms and rivers slide by. Up ahead, a city of glass, shining like a treasure in the sun. Then ... voices. My bat ears twitch. Huh?

They're at it again. Smack in the middle of my flying dream. I check the clock on the nightstand, the green numbers ghosting 11:35. The back-and-forth words coming from the kitchen get louder, sharper.

Wish our house had an upstairs like Luke's.

Wish I had a remote control that could mute anything.

"Jake," Cassie murmurs.

"It's okay," I say, reaching to flick on the lamp.

Cassie squints even though the yellow light is dim. She listens to the harsh-sounding words, then rolls out of bed, Thumper tucked safely under one arm.

Scampering around to the bed's other side, she squeezes between mattress and wall, and pushes, grunts. The bed moans, then gives in to be scraped across the floor. Cassie pushes — grunts — until the mattress bumps the nightstand. She knows that's as far as she can go.

"You can't be moving your bed right up to mine," I've had to tell her more than once. "See that nightstand there? ... That's the limit. That's the boundary. That whole strip there is poison. It's bad enough we have to share the same room, bad enough you get scared. A guy needs his privacy."

She smiles over at me, that goofy seven-year-old grin of hers, then bounds up onto the mattress, slithers under the sheet, moves Thumper up top for air, and sighs. "You can turn the light off now."

"Oh, can I?" I say, a little mad at the bossy sound of her voice, as if a soon-to-be second grader could ever tell a soon-to-be fifth grader what to do.

I reach over and flick off the lamp. Mom and Dad are flinging spears at each other. I'm selfish? Look who's talking. Me? Don't make me laugh! You don't have a clue, do you? ...

"Okay, Jake," Cassie says through the new dark.

That means it's time for another story. Sometimes I wish I hadn't started this whole story thing. As if telling stories to your little sister could ever cover up the arguing.

"You'd better be listening," I say, "because I'm starting right now and the last time you didn't hear the beginning because you were listening to something else. You hear?"


Suddenly the back-and-forth spears stop. Hard footsteps. The front door slamming — so hard the whole house jumps, including my ears. Lights swing past the window as the car backs onto the street. I wait till I can't hear the engine anymore. Then the kitchen screen door opens and slams, and I know Mom is outside fumbling for a cigarette.


"Dang it, Cassie. Hold your horses."

I cross my hands behind my head, slide my feet beneath the sheet to find some fresh cool. At least I won't have to talk loud.

"Once," I begin. "Once there was a baby dragon named Smoke. A girl dragon. And she had a brother dragon named Bonfire. And the two liked to stomp over the world and play all the latest dragon games ... like ..."

"Like what?" Cassie says, unable to stop herself. There's real interest in her voice, and I can tell she's glad too that the shouting has stopped.

"I'm thinking," I say.

"Don't rush Jake, Thumper," she says, as if I might actually fall for a talking stuffed rabbit. "It's his story and he'll tell it the way he wants. ... Right, Jake?"

I draw circles with my toes under the sheet and go on, telling whatever comes to mind, about Smoke and Bonfire, about their life in a tiny cave on the side of a mountain, how the two are learning to fly, how Bonfire did his first loop-de-loop today, how Smoke got so excited she torched one of the trees outside the cave.

I keep talking until Cassie's even breathing lets me know she's asleep. I listen hard for wheezing, but her air sounds clear. Then Mom taps at the door and steps in, a strip of living-room light cutting across my bed.

"You kids okay?"

I don't say anything.

She moves to our beds, checks Cassie, sees the bed has been moved again.

"She okay?" she asks, cigarette smell moving over me.

"Yeah," I answer.

I turn over just as she leans down to kiss me, turn quickly so I won't have to see if she's been crying.

"Good night, then," she whispers.

"'Night," I say into my pillow, thinking of where I want the new dragon story to go ... how next time maybe Smoke and Bonfire will leave their tiny cave for a bigger and better one ... one with room after room after room, high up on the tallest mountain, where the air is so clean you can breathe it all the way down to your toes and not wheeze or cough.

The clock shows 12:00. Midnight. I close my eyes and reach for my wings.


THE NEXT MORNING I stay in bed till Dad leaves for work. When I come out, Mom looks tired. "Hurry, Jake!" Cassie says around a mouthful of Frosted Flakes. "We're gonna get our school stuff."

The three of us take the bus to Wal-Mart. The school-supplies aisle is mobbed with kids and parents stuffing carts and baskets.

"Fifteen and twenty ... including backpacks ... not a penny over," Mom says for the second time. That means Cassie gets to spend fifteen dollars and I get twenty.

"O-kay," I say, doing a quick check to see if I recognize any kids from school or the park pool. I hate Mom's talk about money and how we don't have enough.

It's hard not to get excited about all the fancy new binders, folders, markers, packs, and things. I end up with a decent backpack, a binder, paper, colored pencils, and a zippered pouch decorated with a cool-looking alien whose eyeballs sling down to his knees. "Ewww!" the clerk says when she rings it up, which makes me know I made the right choice.

Cassie won't even let the cashier put her Barbie backpack in a bag. The pack is pink with a yellow-haired Barbie and purple zippers and pockets. She hugs it all the way to the bus stop.

We hardly have to wait before the bus pulls up.

"In four days I'll be a second grader," Cassie tells the driver. The man smiles, like it's something he's been waiting all his life to know.

The air inside the bus is hot and stuffy. Cassie chooses a seat toward the back, and Mom and I take the one behind her. Cassie coughs, once, then goes back to humming and fiddling with the zippers on her new pack.

Mom looks out the window, but I don't think she's seeing the things passing by. She still looks tired. I think about the yelling last night and how Mom and Dad seem to fight all the time now.

"Is Dad starting on a new house today?" I say. Usually I can tell how a fight ended by how Mom acts when I mention Dad. But Mom's not talking. She just shrugs, her eyes still staring out the smudged-up window.

Dad's newest job is painting houses. He used to work at Jiffy Lube, but he was let go because he told his boss to kiss his exhaust pipe. Before that he drove a vegetable truck. And before that he worked for a company that does blacktopping. Dad says it's the pits working at one shitty job after another. 'Course if I used that word, I'd get my mouth washed out with soap.

The bus passes a 7-Eleven, and Mom snaps out of her staring. "After the first week, you kids'll have to get yourselves off to school on time," she says. "Your father and I'll both be gone."

Mom's gonna start a new job working part-time at the 7-Eleven across from Safeway. She says walking the seven blocks to work will help her lose weight. She hasn't worked since the Fresh Breeze Laundromat got sold and became Scrub-A-Dub-Dog, sort of a car wash for dogs.

"I'm getting all pluses this year," Cassie turns to say. "I made up my mind."

"Yeah, sure," I say. But it makes me think. For the first time ever I'm looking forward to school. Mrs. Maw said in June that this was going to be my year. "Like the Chinese New Year," she said. "But instead of the Year of the Snake, it'll be the Year of the Jake."

Mrs. Maw likes to joke a lot, which is a good thing because she's got a hard job teaching us Low Expectation kids. She's our school's LEP teacher. LEP means Learning Enrichment Program. But everybody knows it's for dummies like me.

* * *

Later I ride over to Luke's and pick him up for swimming. Once I cross Fremont Street, it's a breeze. The sidewalks are wide and smooth, and the trees block the sun. Luke is already on his bike when I get there, tracing figure eights in the driveway. We streak for the park, then stand in line outside Vista Park Pool, waiting for the doors to open. Luke's shorter than me. His hair's the color of straw. It flops over his ears. Earlier in the summer he told me his parents were thinking about splitting up. I ask him about it.

"That's when they were calling each other names and fighting all the time," he says. "They don't fight that much anymore. They've been paying money to some guy who shows them how to be nice to each other again."

"You can do that?"

"Yeah, a mental counselor guy ... a psycho or something."

"How much is it?" I say.

"Beats me."

"Like, a lot?"

He shrugs. "Maybe. Dad said we couldn't afford to go on vacation this summer."

Luke and I come to the outdoor pool almost every afternoon. We get to ride our bikes and be on our own as long as we stay together. When it's really hot and Cassie feels okay, Mom and her walk to the pool. Sometimes they pick up Luke's little sister, Erin, and Luke's mom, who's the thinnest lady I've ever seen. Luke says his mom eats more than anyone in the family, but she never gains an ounce. When my mom and Luke's mom are together, they look like an advertisement for a weight-loss company — Mom is Before and Mrs. Gilliam is After.

Luke is my age. We're in the same Cub Scout den. I wish he went to Marshall Elementary with me, but he goes to St. Joe's instead. He's really smart. He can tell you facts about stuff you never thought of. Like the number of times a hummingbird beats its wings every second (seventy-five). And how much time the average person has spent eating by the end of his life (four and a half years). He also knows that dolphins sleep with one eye open, and a giraffe's tongue is almost two feet long. I like him because he thinks my webbed toes are cool and because his parents yell at each other too.

The kids who are barefoot keep running onto the grass for relief. Someone up ahead in line starts making hand-in-the-armpit farts. Soon everybody's doing it. The wet under my arm makes mine sound squishy. "Cool," Luke says, working for the same sound. We look like one-armed chickens trying to fly.

Two lifeguards come out when it's time. They're both tan. The girl has a red bathing suit with a towel wrapped around her waist. The guy wears a red Speedo and a pair of yellow flip-flops. You can tell he's proud of his body. You can also tell some of the kids are embarrassed for him. A few girls snicker.

"You guys line up single file and have your quarters ready," he says.

"And no pushing!" the girl says, retying her ponytail. She could be a movie star. Most of the older boys can't take their eyes off her.

The thing about my family is, other than Cassie, we're not all that much to look at. It's not that we'd be mistaken for a family of rhinos or anything. It's just that Dad has bad teeth, Mom is overweight, and I have stick-out ears and webbed toes. How I got webbed toes is a mystery. Mom doesn't have them. Neither does Dad. And they can't remember anyone in their families talking about webbed toes. "Most of my family can't even swim," Mom says.

Luke and I push along with everyone else into the men's locker room. There's lots of noise as shirts and shorts go flying in a dash to be first in the water.

"Not so fast!" the red-suited lifeguard says at the pool entrance. "You guys know you have to shower."

The shower room has nozzles sticking out along three walls. Luke and I share a nozzle, mostly standing back and letting the water bounce off our palms. The water is freezing cold. It makes our arms break out in goose bumps.

Luke looks down at my feet. He has to look every time. "I still think it's a lucky mark," he says. "Like Harry Potter's lightning bolt. Maybe it's magic. Maybe you were chosen for something special."

I give him an elbow. He wobbles forward to keep his balance, and gasps, the cold water pelting his head. That shuts him up. I know he's not making fun of me, but the last thing I need is another mob of guys gawking at my toes.

As far as I know there's nothing magical or special about the second and third toes of both my feet being nearly all-the-way joined by skin that shouldn't be there. Weird, maybe. But not magical. The thing is, it's really not that noticeable. I hardly thought about it myself until last year when fourth grade went to the middle school for swim lessons. That's when Matt Horvath screamed to the whole locker room, "Hey, look at this!"

Suddenly I was a human magnet, all these chlorine-smelling guys in their wet underwear racing over to stare at my feet.





"Hey, Jake's part frog!"

"Ribbet!" this big kid, Daniel, said. "Ribbet! Ribbet! Ribbet!"

This was the same kid I'd felt sorry for earlier when one of the guys called him a whale. Traitor! I ran at him, pushing him against the lockers. He let out an oomph and reached for his side. "Ow!" he said. "My appendix! You frog." His eyes were little slits. He pushed me hard in the chest, causing me to fall over the bench behind me. "Whale!" I said.

Next thing I knew we were rolling, wrestling, the floor and our bodies too wet for either of us to get a good hold.

"Fight ... fight!" someone shouted out the locker-room door.

"What's going on in there?" Mrs. Sinclair yelled.

"Jake broke Daniel's appendix and Daniel's trying to squash Jake!"

"I told you not to goof around in there. Now cover yourselves, I'm coming in!"

She did too, bursting through the doorway like the first firefighter at the scene of a fire. I had to sit on a bench beside Mrs. Sinclair for the last two days of swim lessons, sweating in my clothes and watching everyone else have a good time. Luke says keeping a guy with webbed toes from swimming is cruel punishment and that a good lawyer could have gotten me off.

* * *

We stay in the pool until time is up and the lifeguards blow their whistles and yell at everybody to get out. The locker room reeks of chlorine and wet socks. Almost every kid has red eyes.

"Aliens have landed," I tell Luke.

"Sunburned, butt-naked aliens," he says.

We burst out laughing and keep laughing the whole time we're dressing. Whenever one of us calms down a little, the other says butt-naked aliens, and we go crazy again. That's the way it is with me and Luke. We get these laughing fits.


DAD IS HOME from work when I get back to the house. He's on his knees in front of the garage in his paint-spotted coveralls, the lawn mower upside down in front of him. He's using a putty knife to knock off old clumps of hardened grass from the mower. He stops when he sees me, uses a rag to wipe his forehead, then sips the beer beside him.

"Honey!" he yells toward the back door. "Here he is."

Honey? That means they've made up.

Mom looks out. "Where've you been? The afternoon swim closes at four."

"Four thirty, Mom. ... I've told you a million times. Where's Cassie?"

"She's watching that show she likes. She took her medicine and ran through the sprinklers for a while."

Connected to the side of the garage is a tiny wooden shed. Dad keeps shovels and rakes and stuff there. That's where I go to change into my cat clothes ... the clothes I wear when I go to Mrs. Pittmon's. I can't keep them inside our house because the hair and dander from Mrs. Pittmon's cats can trigger Cassie's asthma.

I change quickly, taking my cat clothes out of the black garbage bag and putting my un-cat clothes in the clear one. Dad's using a wrench to take the blade off the mower when I get back out front. "Surprised the thing cuts at all," he says, standing up with the blade in hand. "When are you gonna learn how to do stuff like this?"

"I don't know," I say.

"Well, you're old enough."


Excerpted from Listening for Crickets by David Gifaldi. Copyright © 2008 David Gifaldi. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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