Shelly loved Mama’s garden. It didn’t have as many pretty flowers as Gramma’s, but it also didn’t have so many thorns. Shelly hated thorns. Their vindictive little spikes would scrape her arms and legs whenever she tried to explore, patterning her skin with a lattice of stinging welts.
No, Mama’s garden was better. Mama’s garden had dandelions and sourgrass and masses of green, crinkle-edged leaves harboring tiny, red strawberries. Shelly liked strawberries. She liked the cheerful yellow dandelions and the neighbor’s cat that would prowl through the yard, warily eying the little girl, keeping a safe distance before leaping to the top and over the fence.
But most of all, Shelly liked the bugs.
Today, Shelly was following a butterfly. Its orange and black wings dipped and soared, pausing weightless for a long moment, then it fluttered up and disappeared behind the hedge. Shelly closed her eyes and turned her face towards the sun. The warmth felt good. What would it be like to fly? She lifted her arms out and rotated in tight circles, eyes still closed. Faster and faster she turned, winding up like a top. Then she pulled her arms to her chest, setting off a burst of speed that sent her spinning madly until she tripped on a clump of grass and landed on her butt, giggling and slightly winded. She flopped on her back, breathing deeply, and wondered why bringing her hands in made her spin so much faster.
The grass made the backs of her knees itchy, so she rolled onto her side. An ant was making its way down a blade of grass a few inches from her face. She watched it disappear into the miniature jungle of the lawn. Shelly wondered how many ants were down there. Did they have names? Did ants ever get sad?
Shelly sighed and sat up, looking around to see what other bugs might be inviting her to come visit. A fly buzzed past her ear, but she couldn’t see it. Maybe there would be some bugs over by the dead plum tree? She pulled herself to her feet and pushed her hair out of her eyes. Walking purposefully toward the dead tree, she paused at the line of bricks that had once edged a flowerbed, considering. Bricks were good for bugs — or rather, the spaces between the bricks where the mortar had crumbled into pieces. She crouched down, peering curiously into a shadowed crevice. Her hair fell over her eyes again, and she absently shoved it back.
Yes! There! Her face lit up in delighted triumph as a pill bug crawled out and onto the top of the brick. Pill bugs were her favorites. She watched as it explored its surroundings, the tips of its teeny legs poking out from under its segmented shell, antennae continually moving, questing, searching for…. She wondered what pill bugs look for. Food? What kind of food? Do pill bugs like french fries? Shelly liked french fries, except from that one place where they were covered in orange stuff that made her tongue tingly.
Behind her, inside the house, voices raised. They weren’t shouting — not yet, anyway — but they were arguing loudly enough to be heard through the closed windows.
Shelly tuned out the voices and scrunched down even lower so she was eye level with the pill bug. Ever so carefully, she reached out one small finger and poked the bug. It immediately rewarded her by spasming into its protective ball. She delicately nudged the ball across the surface of the brick until it rolled over the side into her other waiting hand. She raised it up to her face and waited, willing it to open up again.
The voices were getting louder, more strident, intruding on Shelly’s vigil. She did her best to ignore them, focusing all her attention on the little ball resting in her palm.
Shelly held super still, trying to make it feel safe. Finally, after what seemed like forever, the ball tentatively started to stretch itself. Shelly held her breath until it turned back into a bug, tickly on her skin as it made its way across her palm. She leaned over and held her hand as level with the top of the brick as she could so that her new friend could crawl back to where she’d found it.
The argument inside reached a crescendo. One voice, deeper, was shouting. The other screamed back, a torrent of rage and pain. The shouts and screams entwined in a vicious orchestra of reciprocal daggers. Something crashed, shattering into tinkling shards. Shelly startled at the sound, eyes wide, breath becoming ragged.
A door slammed and footsteps pounded down the front walk. A car door opened and closed, the engine started, and the car peeled away from the house with a screech of tires.
Inside, the screams became sobs, gut-wrenching, tearing.
Shelly watched the pill bug disappear into a different crack between the bricks. Her head tilted, considering. Her breathing evened out. Inside her chest, her heart rolled up into a little armored ball, keeping her safe.
Yvonne Eliot loves to play with watercolor words, trying to convey the experience of being human.
~ Tip the author ~