Authors: M. E. Kerr
For James and Klarene Kamitses
of Sunnyvale, California,
with much love.
IKE ALL COCKROACHES, SHOEBAG
was named after his place of birth. He was snoozing there now, in the open toe of a white summer sandal. He was haying his old dream of growing big enough to squash the seven-legged, black jumping spider and of moving somewhere warm and dark and filled with meats, cheeses, sweets, and starches.
All of Shoebag’s family dreamed about living in a safer neighborhood, even though this building in Boston was home sweet home. Already they had lost two aunts and a cousin to the jumping spider, and one grandfather, plus several uncles to water bugs and beetles, wasps, centipedes, and the dread fumes of Zap.
Their apartment was fumigated on the first Monday of every month, when they had to scamper through underground passages to the building next door. There they waited until the dread fumes were gone. Then they went back.
Boston, Massachusetts, was known for its cold, cold winters. But even if the family was lucky enough one day to get a ride in a box going somewhere else, there was no assurance that they would be settled in a warmer climate. Neighbors they knew had escaped in a packing crate some time ago, only to find themselves in Bangor, Maine, where it was even colder.
“Wake up, Shoebag!” his mother shouted. “The jumping spider in the kitchen has let down his dragline! He’ll be here soon!”
Of all their enemies, the black jumping spider was the fiercest, and almost as violent as his fat and hairy brown brother from next door.
Quick and tricky, he had no web. He let himself down from high levels on the dragline of silk he spun in his spinnerets.
“Death to all insects!” he called out, for like all spiders, he was not an insect but an arachnid. He had no jaws. He had many eyes. He would have had eight legs, as all arachnids do, except that a Persian cat from the third floor had pulled one off.
“Shoebag!” his mother’s voice again, this time from the top of a Reebok next to the sandal, “Hurry up! Get your cerci moving!”
A cerci is what cockroaches call their tails.
Shoebag was anxious to get his cerci moving.
His mother’s antennae made a light puff of air. A cerci is a remarkably sensitive structure, and even a light puff of air directed at a cerci sends a cockroach scurrying. But Shoebag did not move.
The trouble was, Shoebag couldn’t get his cerci to go.
The reason was, Shoebag’s cerci was missing.
So were his two back legs.
So were his two middle legs.
So were his two front legs.
And so were his antennae.
Something terrible had happened to Shoebag.
Shoebag’s mother was named Drainboard. His father’s name was Under The Toaster.
When Drainboard took a good look at Shoebag her wings fluttered down, her shell quivered, and she called out, “Under The Toaster, come here immediately! Something’s happened to Shoebag!”
“Something terrible happened to me!” Shoebag said. “I am changed!”
“You certainly are changed!” said Drainboard.
Under The Toaster hopped out of a black loafer and stared with horror at his son. “You really are changed! Ugh!
“I have tiny hands,” Shoebag said. “I have tiny feet! I have a tiny nose and tiny ears! I have a tiny head!”
“With hair!” Under The Toaster exclaimed.
“You have eyebrows and eyelashes!” Drainboard groaned.
“You have a neck and a chest and a stomach,” Under The Toaster complained.
“I have become a tiny person,” said Shoebag.
“You have become quite repulsive!” Under The Toaster told the truth, and the truth made Shoebag’s father shiver with disgust.
“I cannot stand myself! Yeck!” said Shoebag looking at his new body.
“Now you will get dirty the way people do.” His mother was backing away from him.
“This is the worst thing that has ever happened to me.” Shoebag was waving his new tiny hands, staring with awe at his new tiny fingers, then stamping his new tiny feet.
It was right at that moment that the black, seven-legged jumping spider swung down on his dragline from a wooden coat hanger above them.
“Whoops!” he said, when he saw Shoebag, for he had not counted on meeting up with a person. “My mistake!” and he tried getting back up to the closet shelf.
Shoebag picked the spider up and tossed him through the crack of the closet door.
“Go after him and pull off his other legs!” Drainboard said.
“I am not that much of a person,” Shoebag protested. “I can’t pull legs off.”
“Then step on him!” Under The Toaster yelled.
“I have no shoes on,” Shoebag said, “I cannot step on something that will squish in my bare feet!”
Shoebag could not believe that he had actually touched an arachnid, and the black jumping spider at that!
“You cannot run around naked, either, now that you are a tiny person,” said Drainboard, philosophically.
“I’ll need tiny clothes,” Shoebag said.
“You’ll need light,” Under The Toaster said.
“I’ll need money,” Shoebag said. “I’ll need toys. I’ll need candy. I’m a tiny person.”
“You’ll need three meals a day,” Drainboard said. “Our picnics won’t be enough for you.”
“You won’t be satisfied with other people’s crumbs,” said Under The Toaster.
“You’ll need soap and a washcloth,” said Drainboard. “You’ll need a bed and sheets and blankets and a pillow.”
“I’ll need television,” said Shoebag. “I’m a tiny person!”
“We can’t give you any of those things,” said Drainboard.
“We will probably have to disown you now,” said Under The Toaster.
“You are my family, though,” said Shoebag. “You are the only family I have.”
“You will have to go someplace and forget all about us,” said Under The Toaster.
“Go where? Where will I go?”
“Someplace you can’t step on us,” said Drainboard. “You are a person now, and you will want to step on us.”
“I will never be that big a person,” Shoebag said. “I will never want to step on my own mother and father.”
“You are too big already!” Drainboard said. “If you wanted to get back inside your shoebag, you couldn’t do it anymore. You can’t crawl through the cracks, or hide behind doorknobs, or skitter up lamp cords, or anything!”
This was true. Shoebag had grown larger than he’d ever dreamed he could be, even though he was just a little boy.
“I am getting scared of you,” said Under The Toaster. “You may be my own son, but you no longer resemble me.”
“I am getting scared of myself,” said Shoebag. “This is no time to abandon me. Now more than ever I need you.”
“Before you grow another inch,” Drainboard said, “promise you’ll never step on your own mother.”
“He can’t keep promises,” said Under The Toaster. “He’s a person.”
“I’m only a little person, so I can keep little promises,” said Shoebag.
“A promise not to step on us is not such a little promise,” said Drainboard. “It’s a big promise.”
“I can handle it,” Shoebag told her.
“You don’t know that,” said Under The Toaster. “You don’t know the things people are capable of doing.”
“I know that now I’m one of them, and I know that I will never step on my own parents.”
“People do things and say the things they did were accidents,” said Under The Toaster.
“I will be very, very careful!” Shoebag vowed. “Do you think I want to be an orphan?”
“Whisper!” said Under The Toaster. “Your voice hurts my ears.”
Shoebag whispered, “I will never harm you, and I will be very, very careful.” Then Shoebag had the first happy thought since he had become this little person. He began to whisper harder. “When I get shoes I will crush the seven-legged, black jumping spider,” he said, “and his fat, hairy brown brother from next door! And when I get clothes with pockets I will collect little picnics and bring them to you.”
“The air from your whisper hurts my antennae,” said Drainboard.
“And it is too hot,” said Under The Toaster. “You are talking hot air!”
Shoebag covered his mouth with his new hand. “Is that better?”
“A little, but don’t move your foot until I get up on the wall. You almost broke your promise to us.”
“I can’t see in here, that’s why,” said Shoebag. “Let me reach up and turn on the light.”
“No, not that bright light!” said Drainboard. “Please!”
“But how can I see you?”
“We’ll tell you when we’re safely out of sight,” said Under The Toaster.
Shoebag waited in the dark. He had always liked the dark, always run to dark places, but now he found that he was afraid of the dark.
Anything could happen in the dark to a person. He had seen that with his own eyes. He had seen people stumble and fall in the dark. He had seen people get mugged in the dark. He had always known that the first thing a person did when they entered a dark place was to turn on a light.
I don’t think this is right, he told himself, that I should be standing here without any clothes on in a dark closet. I am just a little boy.
“Did you hear what I said?” Shoebag called out.
There was no answer.
Perhaps he had not said it aloud, for he was not yet used to being a person with this little voice.
“Where are you?” he called out. “Can you hear me?”
“I’m in the pocket of the …” and the rest of what Drainboard said was muffled.
“Shhhhh!” from far away, from under wool or behind zippers, or inside coat linings, “Our ears! Hush!”
“WHERE ARE YOU?” Shoebag began to panic. “WHAT POCKET?”
He stood in the dark listening.
When there was no answer, he felt so alone and desperate that he began to holler louder. “I’LL GO THROUGH ALL THESE POCKETS!”
“Oh, no, you won’t!” a new voice, very much like his own, said. “Thief! Thief! Closet thief! Call the police!”
F COURSE SHE HEARD
all the racket going on downstairs in the hall, but Pretty Soft Biddle did not get involved in trouble.
She did not get involved in anything that might cause her to worry and frown, for that could make wrinkles someday on her face, and then where would she be?
“Thief! Thief! Closet thief!”
Pretty Soft reached for the television remote control and pushed Volume Up.
It was almost time for her commercial, too, and even though she had played it over and over on the VCR, she liked to see it afternoons when it came on in the middle of soaps. She liked to hear it at full volume.
Her real name was Eunice Biddle, but everyone called her Pretty Soft. Her father did. Her mother did. The Postman did. Her relatives did. Her tutor and manager, Madam Grande de la Grande did, and her fans certainly did.
She was seven years old, but she still looked about four. It was her dearest wish that she would look four forever, though she knew it was probably not a wish that could come true.
Pretty Soft could still hear some noise from downstairs, and she was afraid that if it did not stop, she would wonder about it. If she wondered too hard about it, next thing she knew she might wrinkle her brow, a thing she would never do if she could help it.
So she put down the television remote and picked up one of her mirrors. The white one which went with the white furniture, the white rug, and the white drapes in the living room where she was sitting.
She stared into this mirror which was always in the living room, and she said what she always said to her reflection when she could feel herself about to get tense.