ZuZu Land

by Christina Elaine Collins


 

It’s not easy to find ZuZu Land. You have to be bored enough—or tempted enough. Frillton, Delaware, was boring enough, and Rutendo was good at tempting me. Maybe because she came from Zimbabwe—an exotic-sounding place. Or because she’d chosen me as her new American friend, even though I was unexotic. Or maybe I was just young.

 

Her skin merged with the leafy shadows at the dead end of our street. She didn’t mention where we were going. I wondered if she knew. Mostly I wondered why she wasn’t scared—why she didn’t turn around and say, “Let’s just watch TV.” Then I wondered if Zimbabweans knew about TV.

 

I guess I should have been put off by the way there was no path, not even a bent-up sign or painted arrow to guide us. But those woods worked fast, almost as fast as Rutendo herself, so it didn’t take long

for the trees to soften into bushes. And trimmed grass. And a shining swing set.

 

“Shit.” I froze at the edge of the woods.

 

“Shit?”

 

“It’s a swear word. My mother doesn’t like it.” I lowered my voice and peered over Rutendo’s shoulder. “I think we’re in someone’s backyard…”

 

Rutendo rushed forward, out of the safety of the trees. She sprinted across an emerald lawn, past a gazebo, toward the brick fortress rising before her. She raced stride for stride with my heart, but

softly, like a tiger prowling some African jungle. Her Frillton Middle School windbreaker—the cheap one the vice principal mailed to new students each summer—hung around her waist and started to slide down her hips.

 

“Wowee!” She skipped past a latticed front porch, jangling a wind chime with her fingers. I winced.

 

She paused in the street beyond the house and waved. “Coming?”

 

I almost wished it wasn’t summer, so I could tell her that I had homework to do. That I had to be going back. But it was August. There was nothing to do except watch TV or reread a book or ride my bike

around potholed streets. Or follow Rutendo.

 

“Look at how beeg these houses are.” Rutendo whipped out her disposable Kodak camera.

 

I hovered next to her, turning round and round in the center of the cul-de-sac. I let my eyes follow the jet-black driveways that branched off toward three-door garages and color-schemed flowerbeds and

in-ground swimming pools. Every grass blade, every climbing vine, everything in sight was groomed with precision. Everything except one strip of land between two houses, where overgrown grass encircled a waterhole. A few mallard ducks floated there. I blinked at this patch of wilderness.

 

Rutendo didn’t seem to notice it.

 

“Strike a pose!” She held up her camera, waiting.

 

I must have posed in front of every house. Eleven front yards. Pointing, waving, saying “cheese”—exhausting techniques I had already exhausted on family vacations. Sometimes I tried other things. I put

my hands on my hips and bent one knee, or stuck out my tongue, or threw forth my still-flat chest. I tried to look natural. I felt stiff.

 

“My turn.” Rutendo tossed the camera to me. “So I can leeve forever in ZuZu Land.”

 

“ZuZu Land?”

 

She nodded. “We should call it that.”

 

I watched Rutendo through the viewfinder. My finger snapped the button stupidly, immortalizing each sure, playful motion of her body. For a minute and a half, I was a photographer. A mediocre photographer invited to work with a famous foreign model.

 

I don’t know why she called it that—ZuZu Land. I don’t even know how she spelled it. In my head, it has always been Z-U. I must have figured it was a Zimbabwean word. Or a sound that popped into Rutendo’s head, twice in a row, as we wandered around the cul-de-sac. But now that I think about it, she might have meant that we were in a Z-O-O, with all those houses looking at us. I didn’t ask. Rutendo stood on the lawn of a Victorian-style house, capturing a garden gnome in her last exposure.

 

I looked around. “Where do you think everybody is?”

 

She shrugged. “Europe, probably.”

 

“Oh. Yeah. Probably.”

 

We didn’t give much thought to our luck. The empty yards. The stillness in the windows. All that quiet on an August afternoon, while the residents lounged at their summerhouses, unaware that their lawns

were our vacation spots. Rutendo stretched her arms and started walking toward the Victorian house.

 

“Where are you going?”

 

She marched through a flowerbed and peered into a window. Humming, she disappeared around the corner of the house, pulling a bobby pin out of her braids.

 

I stared at the trampled flowerbed. I wondered what it would be like to plant my feet there, next to the geraniums.

 

When I found Rutendo on the back patio, she was maneuvering her bobby pin into the lock on the sliding glass door.

 

“What are you doing?” I knew what she was doing.

 

“I’m hungry.” I thought I saw the corner of her mouth twitch.

 

“You can eat at my house. Your parents and your aunt too. And your sisters. We’re having meatloaf and green beans tonight. Enough for all of us.” I was talking too fast.

 

“I’m hungry now.”

 

The lock clicked. It echoed throughout ZuZu Land.

 

“Where did you learn to do that?”

 

Rutendo slipped the bobby pin back into her hair. “My sister. The other day, when she lost our house key.” She slid the door open. “You’re coming, right?”

 

“What if…we get arrested?”

 

She stepped inside. She didn’t shut the door behind her. I stared at the exposed doorsill.

 

A dog barked somewhere, far off.

 

I lifted my right foot. It felt heavy and hung there. I dropped it, and it landed a few inches in front of my left foot. I moved that one closer. Then the other foot was behind, so I pulled it forward. Or it pulled me forward. I could reach out and close the door now. Or turn and walk off the patio, toward the flowerbed and the geraniums with their roots.

 

But I didn’t.

 

Sunbeams sifted through long windows, speckling a sofa and a coffee table and an entertainment center. I stood in a living room. My eyes went straight to the TV. I’d never seen a screen that big, except

maybe in a movie theater. Rutendo raced up to it, squealing. She started to play with the buttons.

 

“Wait, don’t—”

 

The TV erupted. Rutendo clamped her hands over her ears as it moaned at full volume. The screen winked and morphed into two bodies rolling around on a bed. I didn’t recognize the woman, but I’d seen the man before. My mother watched his movies. Tom Cruise.

 

I lunged forward, jabbing at the buttons. Nothing happened. Rutendo fell back cackling. I could feel the sweat collecting under my arms, seeping through my T-shirt. Soon I would be sweatier than Tom Cruise.

 

I considered running. Running would make me sweat more, but it would get me back to the woods, away from the moaning.

 

Then I noticed the remote control sitting on the TV stand. I grabbed it and shoved my thumb into the largest button, the red one. Tom and the woman disappeared. The TV went mute. Black.

 

Rutendo laughed harder.

 

“Ssshh!” I must have sounded like I was going to cry because she stopped laughing. We waited, listening. Listening to silence.

 

“See?” Rutendo grinned. “We are alone.” She jumped to her feet and skipped into the hallway.

 

I eyed the TV. The screen stared back at me, still black. Still quiet.

 

Too quiet.

 

I found Rutendo in the hallway, facing the third door. It was open a crack. I watched it creak forward as she nudged it with her finger.

 

“It’s dark.” She felt for the light switch. I blinked and saw two girls squinting into mirrors bordered by round light bulbs. We were in a movie star’s dressing room. Or maybe a fancy bathroom. Powder puffs,

hairbrushes, perfume bottles, lotions, and lipsticks were scattered on the marble sink and countertop.

 

“Wowee! Look at us.” Rutendo linked her arm with mine and blew kisses at our reflections. I smiled crookedly and tried to straighten it, but Rutendo broke away. She started to open lipstick cases. She applied three shades of red and pressed her lips to the mirror, smiling at the mark. “Want some too?”

 

“Okay.”

 

“Here.” She cupped my chin in her hand and slid the stick across my upper lip, then my bottom lip.

 

“How do I look?”

 

Rutendo stepped back. “Kissable.”

 

I looked at the mirror, trying to see what she meant. My lips weren’t plump the way hers were, even when I pouted.

 

The smell of coconuts rushed to my nostrils. I coughed, fanning the air as Rutendo sprayed a perfume bottle and pirouetted through the mist. I moved closer to the counter and noticed a powder puff sitting

there. I picked it up, closed my eyes, and patted my face with it.

 

“That looks pretty.”

 

I opened my eyes to see Rutendo staring at me. My cheeks warmed. “Do you want some too?”

 

“Yes. Please.”

 

“Okay.” I leaned in and smoothed the makeup over her nose and cheekbones. Then I stepped back and cocked my head, the way Rutendo had done to me.

 

“What?” Rutendo watched my face fall. I glanced sideways at the counter, searching for something to distract her with. I hoped she wouldn’t look in the mirror.

 

But she turned and saw the white powder standing out against her cheeks. “Oh. This is for American skin.”

 

“Sorry. I didn’t—”

 

“Look!”

 

Rutendo had moved on. She was pointing at a door that seemed to adjoin the bathroom to another room. As she turned to open it, I grabbed a towel and wiped the powder off my face. I had never been grateful for a door before.

 

Boing. Rutendo pounced from bedpost to bedpost. I stood in the doorway, one foot in the bathroom, watching her bound across the canopy bed and listening for car doors or voices or moaning TVs. I

heard nothing except mattress springs. And Rutendo’s braids slapping against her back.

 

She threw a pillow at me. “Try it!”

 

I shook my head. “No. That’s okay.”

 

“Try it!”

 

I wondered how high I could jump.

 

Boing.

 

The comforter’s tassels shimmied as the pillows air-danced around us. We sprang to the ceiling. Boing. I don’t know how long we sprang. We sprang until we collapsed.

 

“Here, get under the covers.” Rutendo pulled the comforter over our legs and lay back, folding her arms under her head. “I could stay here all day.”

 

“Me too.” I glanced sideways at her. The two slight lumps on her chest rose and fell with her breath. I looked down at my own lumpless chest.

 

“Someday, me and you…we’re gonna leeve in a house like this.”

 

“Yeah.” I gazed up at the canopy’s beige underside. “What do you think it’s like? I mean, they probably have maids and things. And gardeners.”

 

“We had a maid. In Zimbabwe.”

 

“You did?”

 

“And two gardeners.”

 

“You didn’t tell me you were rich…”

 

She laughed. “Everyone in Zimbabwe who isn’t poor has a maid.”

 

“Why don’t you have one anymore?”

 

“Things are different here. My family is poor here.”

 

“Oh.” I frowned. “But how can people be rich in one place and poor somewhere else?”

 

She shrugged.

 

“Do you think there’s some place, maybe India…or China…where I’m rich too?”

 

“Maybe.” Rutendo put a hand on her stomach. “I’m hungry.”

 

I opened my mouth to tell her I wasn’t, but something rumbled. I looked down at my belly. She grinned and threw back the comforter.

 

It didn’t take long. The refrigerator. The cabinets. The cupboard. Cartons of ice cream, boxes of cookies, bags of chips. We were a double tornado passing through, inhaling crackers and pudding cups and wafers in a delicious storm, reducing the kitchen to crumbs.

 

Rutendo thought we should sit down for the next course. She set the dining room table, and we dined on Lindt chocolate truffles and sipped milk from wine glasses.

 

“Why did your family come here?”

 

“Hm?”

 

I swallowed the jumble on my tongue. “Why did your family come to America?”

 

“A better education, or something like that.”

 

“Oh. School isn’t good over there? In Zimbabwe?”

 

Rutendo licked her fingers. “We learned English so we could come here.”

 

“I wish I knew two languages.”

 

She looked out the window. “Where do you think we are?”

 

“ZuZu Land.”

 

“No. Really.”

 

I leaned back in my chair and thought about it. Then I grinned, even though I knew my teeth would be smeared with chocolate. “Well, Toto,” I said dramatically. “I have a feeling we’re not in Frillton anymore.”

 

I waited for her to laugh.

 

“Toto?”

 

“Yeah. You know. Dorothy’s little black dog.”

 

“Handisi kunyaso nzwisisa.”

 

“What?”

 

“Sorry. I said I don’t understand.”

 

I blinked. “Understand what?”

 

Rutendo shrugged and reached for another truffle.

 

“That’s what Dorothy says to Toto, when the house lands in Oz. Except it’s Kansas for her, not Frillton. Remember?”

 

She shook her head.

 

“Wait.” I looked at her, as she looked at the truffle in her palm. “Wait. You’ve never…seen The Wizard of Oz?”

 

Rutendo’s nose twitched.

 

“You mean…you’ve never even heard of it?”

 

The words pulsed through me, slowly. I began to process them. I began to forget how much food was in my stomach because I felt light. I felt my spine reaching toward the chandelier. I felt the air changing

between us. I felt it inflating me, elating me with a kind of wisdom—a flair—an advantage—that Rutendo didn’t have.

 

And before I could stop myself, I laughed.

 

The sun was low in the sky, glaring at us through the dining room windows. I couldn’t see Rutendo’s face as she pushed back her chair and stood up. I shaded my eyes and saw that hers were narrow. Her

mouth a line.

 

I opened my own mouth, but nothing came out of it. The chocolate, crackers, and ice cream shifted in my belly. It occurred to me that the first thing to come out might not be words.

 

A roar shook the table. I jumped, knocking over my wine glass and spilling milk across the tabletop. Tom Cruise was back, his moans vibrating throughout the house.

 

No. Not Tom.

 

“Shit.” I looked at Rutendo. “The garage door.”

 

She started to walk away from the table.

 

“Do you think—you think they’ll arrest us?”

 

“Guess we’ll find out, Toto.”  That was all she said before she left the room.

 

“Wait! Where are you going?”

 

Less sunlight came through the windows now, and I had to feel along the walls of the hallway, squinting left and right. A car door slammed below. I tiptoed in bigger strides. “Rutendo?” As my eyes adjusted to

the dimness, I realized I was back in the living room, with the TV. Still black. Still quiet.

 

A dark figure whizzed by me. I stumbled and slammed my knee into the coffee table. “Ow!” Crumpling, I saw the figure out of the corner of my eye, saw it jerk open the sliding glass door. I could tell who it

was by the slapping sound. The braids hitting her back.

 

Rubbing my knee, I got to my feet and swung around to follow her. My forehead smacked something cold. The glass door. It was shut. I stared through it at Rutendo’s outline shrinking in the backyard.

 

Another roar. The garage door closing. I yanked the glass door open and bounded over the threshold, across the patio, onto the lawn. The sky had darkened in the last few minutes, but I could see Rutendo

disappearing into the leafy shadows.

 

“Wait!” I fended off branches, keeping my eyes on her back. Mosquitoes hissed in my ears. “Do you remember how to get home?”

 

She didn’t turn, just kept flying through the trees, growing smaller. “Guess we’ll find out, Toto.”

 

I stopped fighting the branches: they scratched my arms. I squinted, trying to distinguish Rutendo from the thin trunks around me. I couldn’t tell the difference.

 

Then the sound came quick, the breath on my heels even quicker. Barking.

 

I broke into a sprint, numb to the sting of fresh scrapes on my neck and shoulders. My shoelaces flailed. I felt water on my cheeks. Warm. I think I was crying. I called Rutendo’s name, but she couldn’t hear

me. Or chose not to.

 

That’s when I realized the truth about The Wizard of Oz.

 

I knew about Dorothy and Toto. I knew about Munchkinland and the ruby slippers and the Emerald City. I even knew which witch said, “I’ll get you, my pretty,” and which one said, “Follow the yellow brick road.” I had always known these things, the way I knew the alphabet, and it never mattered. It never mattered until five minutes ago. But if it mattered, why was I the one drowning in shadows? Why was I the one losing speed, fangs inches from my calves, while Rutendo was probably safe in Frillton by now, in her home away from home? Maybe I knew about the scarecrow and the tin man and the cowardly lion, but the truth was that it didn’t make a difference. Not in ZuZu Land. I was as much of a foreigner as Rutendo. Maybe more.

 

Snot clogged my nostrils, and I gulped at the air. I pumped my legs, waiting for the dog’s fangs to pierce my ankles. I ran and waited. Waited and ran. Mostly I ran.

 

A wired fence emerged from the trees. I didn’t have time to stop, to judge the height or distance. I jumped, climbed, hurled myself over the fence, stumbling, but still running. There was a yelp. A

frustrated snarl. I kept running. I was running forever, I think. Running until I saw, in the moon’s pallor, a rusty swing set. Neglected grass. A dull light in an open window.

 

Small, familiar houses.

 

I stopped running.

 

ZuZu Land was gone. I was back in Frillton, in someone’s backyard.

 

In the street beyond the house, Rutendo stood waiting for me. As we looked at each other, the streetlight illuminated her skin.