“Groan,” said Anastasia Krupnik feebly, and kicked the living room couch with one sneaker. She was lying on the living room floor. She was terribly depressed. She was so depressed that she had been acting out all the deathbed scenes she could think of. Beth, in Little Women. (A few small coughs, and then, weakly, “Farewell, my dear sisters.”)
Juliet. (A gulp of poison, a horrible face because poison probably tasted terrible, and then, sadly, “Sorry things didn’t work out, Romeo.”)
Charlotte, in Charlotte’s Web. (No final words, because spiders can’t talk. But a few writhes. Probably spiders would writhe, dying. Then all eight legs—or six? Anastasia couldn’t remember—straight up in the air. Tough to act that one out, when you have only two legs.)
She wondered what would happen if her parents found her dead on the living room floor. Probably her mother would say, “For Pete’s sake, I just cleaned this room yesterday, and now look at it.”
She groaned again. “Groan.” Feebly still, but a little louder.
There was no response from anywhere. Deathbed scenes weren’t any fun at all without an audience.
“GROAN,” she roared, finally.
Her mother appeared in the doorway with an orange potholder mitten on one hand.
“Did you call me?” she asked cheerfully. “I thought I heard someone call ‘Mom.’ ”
“I was groaning, for Pete’s sake,” said Anastasia. “Can’t you even recognize a groan when you hear one?”
“Do it again.”
“GROAN,” roared Anastasia. Then she went on, dramatically, “I am dying. I have clasped an asp to my bosom.”
“Must have been a heck of a disappointment for the asp. You hardly even have a bosom.”
“Mom!” Anastasia sat up and threw a cushion at her mother.
“Sorry. That was a rotten thing to say. You’ve got the groaning wrong, though, incidentally. You don’t say ‘groan’ when you’re groaning. A good groan sounds like this: ‘Arrgghh.’ ”
“Hey, that’s pretty good.”
“You try it.”
“Not bad. I would have come right away if I’d heard that. Do it again, louder.”
“Terrific. Wait a minute while I get my cup of coffee and then I’ll ask you what’s wrong.”
Anastasia followed her mother to the kitchen and poured herself a glass of Kool-Aid.
“Now then,” said her mother as she stirred her coffee, “what seems to be the problem?”
“Severe depression.” Anastasia sighed.
“Well, I can see that. What’s causing the depression?”
Anastasia thought while she sipped her Kool-Aid. “Boredom,” she said. “And also poverty. Extreme poverty.”
“I can relate to that,” said her mother. “At least to the poverty part. Your dad and I have never been rich. We never will be rich. English professors don’t make very much money, and he’s always going to be an English professor, because he loves it. And I’m always going to be an artist, because that’s what I love, and artists never make much money.”
“Mom,” said Anastasia patiently, “I’m not talking about that kind of poverty. I’m talking about twelve-year-old, extreme, desperate, two-dollar-a-week-allowance kind of poverty. If I really did want to kill myself with an asp, I wouldn’t be able to, because I wouldn’t be able to afford an asp.”
“True,” said her mother. “Asps don’t come cheap in Massachusetts.”
“And as for the boredom . . .”
“Yes. Tell me about the boredom. I can’t remember ever being bored. Also, Anastasia, I can’t remember you ever complaining of boredom before. Just last week you were in and out of the house all the time, with a million things to do. You were playing tennis every day, and you were off riding your bike, and when I wanted you to help with the dishes I could never find you. Now I can always find you, because you’re always lying on the floor saying, ‘Farewell, cruel world.’ What’s happened?”
“Steve Harvey.” Anastasia sighed. “The only person I know in this town. At least the only person my age. My tennis partner. My bike-riding companion. My only friend, for Pete’s sake.”
“I’m your friend,” said a very small voice. Anastasia’s brother, Sam, padded into the kitchen, with his shoes untied, and climbed into a chair. “I want some Kool-Aid. I want my friend Anastasia to pour me some Kool-Aid, please,” he said.
“Oh, for Pete’s sake,” said Anastasia. She poured some Kool-Aid into Sam’s plastic clown cup. “Here. Don’t spill it.”
“You’re right, Sam,” said her mother, smoothing his curly hair. “You are Anastasia’s very dear friend. But right now she’s not talking about two-year-old friends. What’s happened to you and Steve, Anastasia? Did you have a fight?”
“No, of course not. But he’s the only person my age that I’ve met since we’ve moved here. And he was going to introduce me to other kids before school started. He was going to have a big cookout at his house. He was going to have it next week, in fact . . .”
“And now he isn’t?”
“Now, for Pete’s sake, he’s gone all of a sudden. Somebody called his father, some big-deal sports figure, and asked if Steve would like to go to a basketball camp in New Hampshire. They gave him a full scholarship, for Pete’s sake. Nobody’s ever offered me a full scholarship anywhere, except that time Dad offered to buy me a one-way ticket to reform school.”
“He was only kidding, Anastasia.”
“No, he wasn’t. He was really mad.”
“Well, yes, that’s true, he was really mad . . .”
“Because I left his dumb Billie Holiday records on the radiator and melted them.”
“But he didn’t mean it about reform school.”
“I know.” Anastasia sighed. “Watch it, Sam. You’re going to spill that if you’re not real careful.” Sam had picked up the pitcher of Kool-Aid and was pouring himself a...