The Knight and the Ladybug Chapter 1

Chapter 1. Shrink Juice

It was all the fault of the purple popsicle.

At least, that’s what Justin always said. But maybe it wasn’t caused so much by the popsicle as by the bugs in the garden. Justin had spent a sweltering morning trudging down the long row of tomato vines, pulling plump, spiky-tailed tomato hornworms off the fuzzy stems and dropping them one by one into a bucket.

It seemed he had been at it for hours. The row stretched on and on, and the musty smell of green tomatoes haunted the heavy air. Every few minutes, Justin stood up and counted the plants still awaiting inspection. The number didn’t go down very fast.

He tossed the caterpillars over the garden fence with a flick of the bucket. The moment he did so, a whole flock of waiting chickens made a squawking, flapping, beak-first dive for the worms. No sooner had they snatched up the caterpillars, than the birds began to screech, chase each other, and scuffle beak and claw for the juiciest bits.

To a chicken, there is nothing so deliciously irresistible as squirming bugs. Especially cockroaches. Chickens like roaches as much as children like candy. “Not too many roaches, dear, before dinner,” mother hens might tell their chicks. Or, more likely: “Gobble as many roaches as you can for dinner” – because chickens, even grown-up ones, have no self-control.

It was a scorching morning in midsummer – the hottest day yet, Justin thought as he wiped the sweat out of his eyes. He felt like he was being slow-roasted along with the whole countryside. If he used his imagination a little, he could almost hear sizzling. But even worse than the heat, was the cloud of gnats hovering around his head. He swatted them away, but they kept coming back, and every time there seemed to be more of them.

It could have been the purple popsicle. It could have been the tomato hornworms, or the cloud of gnats. But the most likely explanation for the strange events of that day was simply that Justin, like all boys, had an imagination that could spin ideas like a spider spins webs. He was always thinking up something new.

The garden was where Justin did a lot of pretending, because there he was forced to think of ways to make the work less tiresome. While he watered, he was a firefighter putting out forest fires. While he pulled weeds, he was a sanitation engineer. Right now he was a policeman. The tomato hornworms, grasshoppers, and squash bugs were outlaws and communist spies. The ladybugs, butterflies, and other good insects were the peaceful citizens.

In real life, Justin was ten years old, small for his age, and shy of strangers. But in his imagination he was Sir Justin, tall and fearless, slaying dragons with his shining sword, rescuing maidens in distress. Or he was Justin the Explorer, traveling through jungles infested with fierce wild beasts, living for weeks on tiger meat and boiled bamboo, and saving orphan fawns from wildfires.

On and on his pretending went. In each adventure, Justin was the hero, the adventurer, the valiant and admired.

As the sun rose higher, Justin thought longingly of cool things like snowball fights, swimming pools, ice cream, and popsicles.

Of course, in this weather a snowball fight was out of the question. Swimming pool? Justin didn’t know anyone in the area who had one. There was no ice cream to be had either.

But popsicles – they were a possibility! There were some in the freezer right now, and if Justin asked his mother for one, she just might say yes; if he asked after lunch, that is. Justin’s mother said that it was not good for anyone, especially growing boys, to have sugary things before a meal.

Every now and then Justin made a hopeless swing at the gnats with his arm, like the miserable fly-plagued cow that keeps switching her tail, not because she thinks it will drive the flies away, but because she would be even more miserable if she didn’t do something. He squinted at the rows of leaves that looked so much like tomato hornworms. Or were they tomato hornworms that looked like leaves? The sweat running into his eyes, combined with the bright sunlight, made them all blur and swim together.

Justin’s mother refused to spray poison to kill the bugs. “If it kills the bad bugs,” she would say, “what does it do to the good bugs? And what does it do to us?” But there were many times Justin wished he could put on a gas mask and spray bug killer all over the garden.

Justin wiped his face on his sleeve for the twentieth time that morning and looked again, and this time he saw something that made him glad they didn’t spray bug killer: a spotted ladybug.

“C’m’ere, little ladybug,” he coaxed. The beetle scrambled onto his outstretched finger and immediately started crawling upward. Justin turned his hand. The ladybug changed its course and again traveled upward. No matter which way he held it, the ladybug always went toward the sky. All ladybugs did that. Justin didn’t know why.

Finally he allowed the ladybug to reach the tip of his finger. It raised its wings, poised for a moment in the sunshine, and took flight.

Justin bent over with his hands on his knees and got back to work.

“Ha! Gotcha.” Justin plunked a fat hornworm into the bucket. Then he straightened up to rest his back. He raised a hand to his forehead, shading his blue eyes from the blazing sun. “Daddy,” he called across the garden, “how long till lunch?”

Justin’s father, hoeing the corn patch, stopped his work in order to study the position of the sun. Carefully he measured its distance from the horizon with his thumb and finger; then he observed the length of the shadows to calculate the angle of the rays as they struck the earth.

“In approximately three minutes, fifty-one seconds, and seventy-four milliseconds,” he said deliberately, “it will be lunch time.”

“Oh, good!” Justin exclaimed.

Justin’s father pushed the wheelbarrow full of weeds over to the compost bin and started forking the weeds into the bin. When he finished, he could barely get the lid on. Justin heard him mutter something about “insufficient volume.”

He meant that the compost bin was too small. It was a black plastic compost bin, the kind that has a sliding door in the bottom for scooping out the finished compost. They had needed a bigger one for a long time, but somehow nobody ever got around to building one. Justin’s mother wrinkled her nose every time she talked about the old compost bin. She said it was full of roaches, and she couldn’t stand roaches.

The gnat cloud around Justin grew and grew until the boy could stand it no longer. He shouted at the top of his lungs, “AAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHGGG! Will someone please get rid of these GNATS?!!!”

He did not expect anyone to answer, but to his surprise, someone did. A shining blue dragonfly that had been circling high overhead suddenly darted down among the gnats. Zip, zip, zip, zip, zip! Back and forth it flashed, around and around Justin’s head, its wings sparkling like morning dew. When it flew away, every gnat was gone.

Justin had never been so relieved in his life. “Thank you, Dragonfly!” he called. It might have been his imagination, but he thought he saw it dip its wing in reply.

“I’m sure dragonflies are never hot, even on days like this.” Justin sighed wistfully as he watched the dragonfly soar in effortless freedom. “I wish I were a dragonfly. No, I don’t. I wouldn’t like to eat gnats. I wish I could ride a dragonfly! I wish I could shrink down to the size of an ant, leap on its back, like a knight on a flying horse, and fly away!” He stood spellbound, dreaming of the sweet, strong wind on his flushed face.

The lunch bell rang, bursting into his thoughts like a dragonfly into a cloud of gnats. “Hooray!” Justin yelled, making a beeline for the house.

If Justin had known what would come from that one little wish, he might not have forgotten it so soon. But he didn’t know. And he didn’t know that before long the compost bin would be the center of all his thoughts, or that soon he would be wishing it was a hundred miles away.

Justin made short work of the stack of sandwiches his mother had made for lunch. When at last he had eaten enough to refill his depleted fuel tank, he asked his mother, “Can I have a popsicle? Please?”

Before she had finished saying, “Yes, you may,” Justin had the freezer door open. But when he looked in, he collapsed on the floor.

“What’s the matter, son?” asked his father calmly. “Is the freezer emitting nitrous oxide?”

“They’re all gone!” Justin wailed.

“Well, there’s no need to be so melodramatic about it,” said his mother. “All gone? What do you call these?” She held up two purple popsicles.

Justin’s forehead puckered. “I call them – uh – sop-pickles. They’re not popsicles if they’re purple!”

“Why don’t you like purple popsicles?” Justin’s father asked him. “Grape is my favorite flavor.” As he spoke, he took one of the popsicles, peeled back the wrapper with absorbed attention, and began sucking it.

“’Cause I think – I’m afraid – ” Justin searched his brain for an answer. “I’m afraid they might have Shrink Juice in them,” he finished at last.

“Shrink Juice?” His mother laughed. “Where’d you get that idea?”

“Shrink Juice is purple. And I’m afraid they might use it to color the popsicles.” Justin’s forehead wrinkled.

“I can relieve your fears,” she replied. “I read the back of the box. There are all sorts of unhealthy ingredients: artificial coloring, artificial flavoring, high fructose corn syrup, and preservatives, but no Shrink Juice.” Justin’s mother shuddered as she listed the ingredients. She would never bring such junk into her house. The popsicles had been a gift from Justin’s aunt.

“They don’t tell you on the box,” said Justin. “They put it in secretly.”

I have never heard,” said his father absently (still apparently absorbed in the consuming of his popsicle), “of someone shrinking from eating a purple popsicle.”

“They don’t always put it in. And you can’t tell by just eating it. You have to eat the popsicle, then count to ten with your eyes closed, and if you shrink down to the size of an ant, you know there was Shrink Juice in it.”

“What about Grow Juice?” asked his father, becoming interested. “Do they ever use that to color popsicles?”

“Nope,” said Justin. “So there’s no way to get big again, except by waiting till the Shrink Juice runs out. It could be hours, or even days!” He shrugged. “It just depends.”

“Depends on what?” his mother asked.

“Depends on how much Shrink Juice was in the popsicle,” said Justin. And even though he was only pretending (which his parents knew quite well), he almost believed it.

“Well, Justin,” said his father, “it’s up to you, but in my opinion, a purple popsicle is better than no popsicle. It’s a risk-benefit analysis. Think about it.”

“And if you don’t want to eat this one, that’s perfectly fine,” his mother quickly added. “I’ll just throw it away. Popsicles aren’t good for growing boys.” The popsicle moved threateningly toward the trash can.

“I’ll eat it!” said Justin hastily.

“Are you sure?” asked his mother, dangling it in front of her face and wrinkling her nose.

“Yup.” Justin took the popsicle. It seemed a shame to waste it, even if it was purple.

“It's a different color than Daddy’s,” he said anxiously after he had pulled back the wrapper. He sniffed it cautiously. “I think it's from a different batch – one with Shrink Juice in it.”

“There’s only one way to find out,” his father remarked philosophically.

“Well, okay,” Justin dubiously replied. He thanked his mother and went out to the swing.

Justin’s swing hung from a big oak tree near the garden. He often played with his toy cars under that same tree. He had played there so much that the whole area was bare of grass. In the loose, reddish earth, he had made a construction site and a racetrack.

Justin sat on the swing, pushed with one foot to get it going, and gazed dreamily up at the leafy branches as he ate the popsicle. Even in the shade, it was a warm and very sleepy day. There was scarcely a cloud to break the deep expanse of the summer sky. Purple martins swirled through the blueness, high and far away.

Almost before Justin knew it, he was licking the stick. He stood up and put the stick in his pocket. “Well, here goes nothin’,” he said solemnly. He took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and counted to ten.

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