by Michelle Hickman
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.”
by Michelle Hickman
“Sweet Home Louisiana . . .”
Okay, so these weren’t the actual lyrics. Yet Angie hummed them anyway while fish playfully nibbled at her splashing toes. The boat dock creaked under her bum as she leaned over and filled her bucket with more water.
“Get away, fish,” she said, her voice barely a whisper of breath. If she had wanted to go fishing, she would have brought along her poles. But she had other creatures in mind today.
Angie was going alien-hunting.
When the bucket was half full, she placed it on the dock next to her alien-hunting gear: a snorkel and goggles. Could anyone think of any better gear to go a-huntin’ with, especially against aliens? Phasers? Photon Torpedoes? Gigantic Death Stars like in those sci-fi movies? Pshaw! Angie didn’t think so.
Her body slipped into the cool water. She stayed close to the shoreline, her body face down with her whoosh-whoosh of long breaths sounding through the plastic snorkel pipe. Clear water stretched from the surface to the muddy bottom. Her eyes gazed at the waving water plants as she relaxed her body, floating peacefully. She felt the gentle waves lapping against her ears. Angie’s arms stretched out at sides, drifting on their own at the slight current. Her thoughts began to wander, as daydreams played within the hazy sparkles of underwater sunlight.
Dark. Quiet. Then giggles rose from under the blanket. The flashlight clicked on, showing scrunched features with eyes crossed and lips curled in a demented guppy pose. Angie stared at the face and flopped over onto the sleeping bag, laughing.
“Shhhh . . . don’t laugh so loud. The aliens will hear us,” Angie’s twin sister warned. She twirled the spot of light on the blanket, moving it so fast that it made both of them dizzy while their eyes strained to watch it.
“What aliens?” Angie angled her body under the chair. She slipped toes under the blanket edge as they tapped unseen from the outside.
Her twin sister made a menacing claw with fingers. The flashlight cast a giant shadow over their heads - a gaping mouth reaching down. “The Pincher People who snap off little kids’ toes.”
“Eep!” Angie yanked her feet close to her body. Her knee hit the chair leg. The blanket slipped a little, threatening to send their makeshift tent crashing over them.
“Don’t worry. They only live in the water and snap off swimmers’ toes.”
“But,” Angie bit her bottom lip, “we’re taking that trip by the lake this weekend. Won’t they get us there?”
Her twin sister shook her head. “Not if we get them first.”
Her sister leaned in closer. Angie scrambled up to her knees as she felt her sister’s lips press against her ear. “We EAT THEM!”
“EWWWW!” Angie placed her hands over her mouth. In the living room, they heard footsteps approach their tent. The blanket edge lifted and two plates scooted underneath. One had four “Big Mama’s biscuits” - a secret recipe from their grandmother. The other plate had a large helping of small, red, bug-looking things with shells and tails.
“PINCHER PEOPLE!” both girls screamed. Then their giggles mixed in with their “yums” while they devoured dinner.
The daydream faded. Angie’s attention focused on the tiny movement below. She took a deep breath and dived, snagging the unknowing creature in her fingers. Then Angie popped up through the water’s surface and blew water from her breathing spout in whale fashion. She swam back to the dock and climbed up on the creaking boards.
Before she placed her find into the waiting bucket, Angie held the creature before her face, watching the crawdaddy’s little antennas weaving through the air in confusion. Angie scrunched her features into her meanest glare.
“Pincher person, you’re not snapping off anybody’s toes anymore!”
by Michelle Hickman
I opened my mailbox and saw the card, “Sorry we missed you.”
For a brief time, I wondered who it could have been that wanted to drop by. I was at home, more than likely not paying any attention to the pounding noise along the downstairs floor and figuring it was just the handyman banging away at something.
If the person had called, I would have invited them upstairs. I would have offered them something to drink, although I only have orange juice and milk in the fridge. We could have chatted for a spell, really, about anything they wanted. They could have brought a little ray of sunshine in my otherwise bland and dreary existence.
I took a closer look at the card.
It was from the post office. The carrier must have placed it in there. I began to wonder. Have I ever met the carrier? Was he or she a friendly person? Did they want to meet everyone on their route, getting to know them better so they can be left greeting cards and gifts during the holidays? I flipped over the card and within a tiny box was a check mark beside the word “Parcel.”
Something too big for the mailbox had come in. Really, everything is too big for the rinky-dink mailbox I have, even regular business-sized envelopes. The card said the parcel would be ready for pickup the next day, or I could schedule it to have it redelivered. Well, it’s not like I’m doing much with my oh-so-precious time at the moment. So I decide to head out bright and early to pick up the parcel.
Parcel? That’s such a funny British word. Anytime I hear of it, I think of a piece of land. “Pick up your parcel of plowed plant paradise at your local post office and be a pro for eco-friendly progress.” Try and say that 10 times fast.
Anyhow, I went to pick up the “parcel.” I walked along the sidewalk, keeping an ear for any busses coming my way. It’s not exactly a long walk, maybe five or six blocks, but if I could catch the bus I would. The skies were cloudy, but no rain was falling. I can never tell from the apartment. It always seemed cloudy since the building across the street is taller than the one where I live in, casting its huge shadow over every window. It was a bit windy, throwing some loose debris around as I rubbed my eyes now and again.
I watched a sidewalk sweeper rumble by, the man bouncing in his seat and twirling the wheel to avoid the small trees planted along the street edge. I walked by the bank I use, the security guard standing outside looking intently down the street. A few minutes earlier, a cop car had driven past. I wondered if the security guard was interested to see some action, whether or not he knew the local officers, or perhaps reminiscing the days when as a kid he had accompanied the police on a drive-around, as he had high dreams of becoming a beat cop but was never able to pass the physical.
I reached the post office. For once it was empty as the clerk behind the desk scrunched her face when I handed her the parcel pickup card. She asked to see my id. I had it ready for her. Her face scrunched some more, and I wondered if she ever worried about the massive wrinkles she was causing that might stay with her into old age. She scurried behind the large wall and returned in about two minutes with my parcel.
It wasn’t land. I was hoping it would be. I heard the bubble had burst for the real-estate market. Of course, experts have been saying that for years. Still, I might have fetched a good asking price for the square of sod... or at least turned it into a neat welcome mat.
It was a box from Lulu. I thanked the clerk and head out the door. Lulu? Was she a cousin of Laverne or Shirley? I never really understood the plot of that show, despite watching it. Two women living with each other and all the wackiness they do. It was like Felix and Oscar from “The Odd Couple” but geared more for women. I suppose the feminist came out in force to ask for their own show.
Lulu. I knew what the package was. The company is one of those publish-on-demand places. I tore open the package and saw a book inside. I had won it in a contest last week. It was really a magazine filled with several fiction/fantasy stories.
I dropped the outer packaging into the trash and carried my book home, so interested in it that I never heard the bus rumble by. I kept the plastic wrapping on, in case it did rain and proved the weathermen wrong (how dare Mother Nature have a mind of her own to do such a thing as prove that humans don’t know jack-squat about predicting the weather!?!) I walked by the hospital as I saw several people sitting outside on benches, many having a smoke break. A woman laughed as another smoothed out her sundress, making comments about the growing bulge underneath as a man cackled about getting her pregnant. I almost reached the corner as an older man waddled up.
His gait was limping, but not so much as if he had an injury. More like the hardships of life had taken a toll on him, causing him to lean to one side and then the other waiting for a wind of hope and forgiveness would push him upright and lighten life's burden on shoulders. He glanced at me and then his face began to lower in that strange passiveness/shyness strangers have when walking up the street and are caught staring at someone they don’t know.
His eyes started to look down, but mine kept on his face in casual glances. When close enough, I smiled. On his face, a smile also appeared as his head lifted. We silently moved past each other without any greeting. He waddled on his way, perhaps feeling better that someone younger than him gave a bit of notice. I strolled along, hoping I shared with him a bit of my happiness on this day.
"The path to heaven is paved with good intentions."
A reminder from a dear friend.