He took me by complete surprise.
Dingy jeans with ripped out knees stood two inches from my face. I stared at the scuffed red lines across his skin, wanting to lift my finger and trace them, wanting to know what had caused the marks: a slide into the bases during kickball, a bike fall, or a mad scramble over Mrs. Prigg’s fence after fishing in the koi pond in her backyard?
My eyes lifted to stare at Jim’s dirty face. He sported a peanut butter and strawberry jelly goatee, graham cracker sideburns, and a chocolate milk mustache. My momma had once told me that people wore their emotions on their sleeves. Well, Jim wore his lunch on his face.
He leaned forward, staring at the mason jars near my bent knees. I grunted and returned to MY MOST IMPORTANT WORK. It should be obvious what I was doing, but I was two weeks and six days older than Jim. Momma told me to be patient with the younger kids.
“You collect taddies? Why?” Jim bent beside me and I shifted away a few inches. I did not want to get sick from him. The lowdown among the girls in the elementary school playground was that boys forgot to wash their hands after using the bathrooms and had a terrible illness called, ‘cooties.’
“I collect them so they won’t die when the water dries away.” I scooped the empty jar down into the dwindling puddle, as the swimming black dots swished their tails into a new home inside the glass. Then I dumped them into the second mason jar already filled with colonies of tiny soon-to-be frogs.
“Are you gonna keep them in your room?” Jim tapped against the glass. His finger darted toward one tadpole, then a second and a third, skimming around connecting the black dots as he made some type of picture in his mind.
I shook my head while scooping the last ones up. Then I handed him the empty jar while I carried MY MOST IMPORTANT WORK in my hands. I would never entrust a mere boy with such a task. “My momma won’t let me, and I don’t like bugs. So I can’t feed them. I’m taking them to the creek.”
Jim strolled beside me as we headed down the road. “But . . . you have to keep them now. They’re your pets.”
“The taddies will still be my pets in the creek, and they have family there to take care of them.” I explained patiently. My eyes looked at the darkening sky as the evening arrived at the town. I rushed forward, feeling water splashing onto my shirt from the open jar top. Beside me, I heard Jim’s running footsteps.
“But how will you know which ones will be yours?” In a burst of speed, Jim caught up with me and grabbed my arm. I was about to scream at the cootie infection when the car sped through the intersection I was about to cross without looking. Then he tugged me across. “Are you gonna tag ‘em like Mr. Feldon’s dairy cows?”
“I don’t think they have ears.” I puzzled over it as we heard the bubbling water over rocks at the creek. “Anyway, I’ll tell you which ones are mine after we dump them.”
We reached the rushing creek as I leaned forward and upended the jar. All the swimming black dots entered the water. The tadpoles disappeared into the cloudy surface.
I twirled around on heels and placed my finger on my lips, telling Jim to stay quiet. The evening fell over us, along with its quietness as the birdsong ended. Then a new chorus of voices rose to bring music to the night. Frog song.
Assuming that I must be immune to the cooties since I did not feel sick, I bent toward Jim’s ear. “All the ones croaking are mine.”
“Wow! Cool!” Jim grinned. We stood together, listening to nature’s symphony. Then he asked, “Can I help you next time so I can have my own taddies croaking?”
I frowned. “You have to wash your hands after using the bathroom.”
“Momma gets mad when I don’t. My hands are clean. See?” He held out his hands, showing not a speck of dirt even under his fingernails. I was impressed.
I wiped the crumbs from off his face. “Okay. Make sure to bring your jars.”