I should have known trouble was staring me in the eyes when Mikey Burnham pulled a red and black tarantula out of a softball box and offered it to me with a wicked giggle.
“Don’t hand me that thing,” I yelled, stumbling back and banging into the side of the house. “You’d better be careful, boy. My Uncle Jake says if a tarantula bites you, whatever it bites will fall off.” Still, I had to admit, I was mightily intrigued by the spider-—scared almost witless, but intrigued.
Mikey laughed, braying like a donkey. The tarantula perched in the palm of his hand. “Legs won’t bother you.” He paused, and his narrow-set eyes closed into an ominous squint. “Unless he thinks you’re afraid of him.”
I made a brave show of being casual. “Well, I’m sure not afraid of any old spider. And don’t you think I am,” I added, glancing over my shoulder to make sure nothing was in my way if I had to make a break for safety.
A broad grin split his face, mashing his freckles into one big, red blotch. I knew he didn’t believe me, but he didn’t let on.
He leaned forward, lowering his voice into a double-dog-dare whisper. “Then why don’t you go ahead and say ‘hi’ to the little fella who’s going to scare the bejeebies out of Mary Lou Wilson.”
“What’s Mary Lou got to do with anything?” Her name egged on my curiosity, but I still kept my distance from that gangly-legged spider.
Mikey took a step toward me and glanced around. “You know how stuck up on Long Nose is, don’t you?”
Who didn’t? Her Pa was the local banker, and she was always prancing around like she was the top pickle in the barrel. “What does that have to do with that spider?” I hadn’t taken my eyes off Legs.
“Just this,” he whispered, taking another step in my direction. I tried to back away, but I was already pressed up against the side of the house, so I scooted sideways, my eyes refusing to leave the tarantula as Mikey revealed his dastardly plan. “What do you think would happen if old Legs here up and pounced on Mary Lou,” he asked casually, smoothing the hair on Legs’ back as the spider started up his arm.
I snickered. “Can’t you just see her? Those fancy curls would sure straighten out in a hurry.” Then a sobering thought hit me. “Boy, old man Scott would sure give us the dickens.” He was our school principal.
“Yeah, but the paddling would be worth it to see old Nose-in-the-Air jumping around and screaming her head off.’ He broke into a snuffling of giggles.
By now, I was caught up in the scheme. “Sure would,” I replied, screwing up the courage to touch Legs, but only for a second. He stared up at me with those black, shiny eyes.
“Go ahead. Hold him,” Mikey said. “He’s a nice little guy.”
I gulped, closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and opened the palm of my hand.
Without hesitation, Legs climbed aboard and headed up my arm. His hairy feet tickled my arm as he ascended to my shoulder, using my goosebumps for a ladder.
I felt him stop about halfway between my elbow and shoulder. I cracked an eye and there he was, spindly black legs with broad red bands and eyes of black ice, staring straight into mine.
I glanced past him and saw that my arm and hand were still attached to my shoulder, so I felt a little better. After a few minutes, I began to relax. Then he started back up my arm and headed across my shoulders.
Mikey laughed his donkey bray again. “Har, har, har. Wait ‘til he gets to your neck. Turkey neck is his favorite food.”
I ignored Mikey for by now, Legs and me were becoming fast friends. We plopped down on the front porch in the shade so Legs would be cooler.
We played with that gangly-legged spider and snickered over our plans for old Long Nose. After a while, Legs grew tired and climbed on Mikey’s mop of red hair to sleep.
That’s when Mikey’s dad came out on the porch. He’d been home for dinner from the post office where he delivered mail to the rural routes around Mill Creek.
“Hey, boys. What are you fellers up to?” He reached down and tousled my hair. “How you doing, Eddie?”
“Fine, Mister Burnham. We’re just playing.”
He started to tousle Mikey’s hair when Legs decided to stand and stretch his legs. His hand froze in mid-air.
Legs took a step forward, and Mikey’s Pa stumbled backward a step, his face losing some of its color. “Looks like fun,” he mumbled with sort of a gurgle. Legs took another step, and Mister Burnham did the same, backward.
“It sure is, Pa.”
His pa shook his head. “Fun sure has changed since I was a kid,” he muttered, stumbling back as his heel slid off the porch.
“Would you like to be a kid again, Pa, huh?”
Now that his pa was on the ground, color returned to his face. “I don’t think so, boy. It was hard enough just growing up. I don’t think I could live through them years again,” he muttered, hurrying to his car.
I frowned. “What’d he mean by that?”
Mikey shrugged. “Beats me. He talks like that ever so often. Probably it’s the turnip greens Ma cooks. They do funny things to me sometimes.”
That made sense. I guess turnip greens are as good a reason as any for the odd things grown-up people do at times.
“Well, whatta you think?” Mikey jabbed me in the ribs.
He gave an exasperated groan. “About Mary Lou. About my plan.”
I scratched my head. “I don’t know. If I get in any trouble, Pa might not take me deer hunting this year.”
“Yeah.” Mikey grew pensive. “And old man Scott would blister our tails good—if he caught us.”
“But, boy howdy, I can just see old Long Nose screaming and carrying on, can’t you?” His eyes danced with excitement.
I could picture her too. And that’s when I knew we were going through with it, beating or not, hunting trip or not.
That was the first time we deliberately did something knowing that we faced fearful punishment if we were caught. Usually, we did things without thinking, like most folks.
I picked Legs up and held him right up to the tip of my nose. “Legs, you old red and black bug. You just got yourself a job. You’re going to straighten old Long Nose’s curls out just like a fence post.”
After church next day, we built a small box about six inches square. It looked like a gift, but when the ribbon was removed, a rubber band snapped open a door in the side of the box, and out sauntered old Legs in all his red and black glory.
“Let’s put him in,” I exclaimed, anxious to get the box wrapped.
“Not now. Poor guy. He can’t stay in the box all night. He’ll be scared, and he might get sick. We’ll meet out back of the school in the morning, okay?”
I hardly slept that night. Next morning, I was up before Ma. When she came into the kitchen, I was sitting at the table tying my tennis shoes.
She frowned. There I was, all dressed, hair brushed, face scrubbed. “What’s the matter, Eddie? You sick?”
“Oh, no, Ma’am. I just figured I’d get up early and help you this morning. You work awful hard sometimes,” I quickly added, hoping to convince her nothing was amiss.
She arched an eyebrow and looked around the kitchen carefully. “Come here a minute, Eddie.”
Obediently, I shuffled over to her. She put her hand on my forehead and shrugged. “Huh? Well, that is nice of you, but I don’t any help. Just sit while I fix your breakfast.”
While I ate my oatmeal, I couldn’t help noticing Ma glancing at me from time to time. She seemed sort of confused.
She must’ve eaten some of Miz Burnham’s turnip greens, I guessed.
When I finished my oatmeal, I washed my bowl and spoon and put them up. I sure didn’t want her to be suspicious. “Well Ma, time to go,” I announced sort of free and easy-like. I picked up my sack lunch.
“But Eddie, it’s only seven. You’ve got plenty time.”
“I know, Ma, but I need to get to school early to study for a history test.” I waved and kept walking, letting the screen door slam behind me, satisfied I had done nothing to make her suspicious.
We wrapped the box out behind school and then waited. The morning dragged. Every time Mikey and I looked at each other, we’d break into giggles.
Finally, the lunch bell rang. We knew Mary Lou would be leery of a gift from us, so we gave it to Alwilda Reed, old Long Nose’s friend. We explained that Miss Fields, our geography teacher, had asked us to give it to Mary Lou for her.”
“Well, why don’t you then?” Alwilda asked in her squeaky little voice that always seemed sarcastic.
She was one of those irritating people. I reckon some folks are just born bothersome-like, and for a moment, I thought about a box for her with her own private spider. “We would,” I said, “But, the principal, Mister Scott, he wants to see us.”
She stuck her pointed nose in the air. “So, you’re in trouble again, huh?”
Mikey shook his head. “No, we’re not in trouble. He—he just wants to ask us something about deer season, that’s what. Come on, Eddie. Come on. We can’t keep Mister Scott waiting.”
We stopped around the corner of the hall and waited until Alwilda pranced into the lunchroom with the box. We crept up to the door and peeked around the corner. “There they are,” I whispered, nodding to old Long Nose herself, the biggest sissy in school with all her sissy friends.
“They’re sure in for a surprise,” mumbled Mikey.
Old Long Nose took the gift, and all the girls gathered around, giggling and squeaking. All we could see was a cluster of different colored curls bobbing over the box.
I put my hand over my mouth to keep from laughing out loud. Any second now, the lunchroom would explode into shambles, and Mary Lou would be hanging from the light fixture overhead, her curly hair straight as pine boards.
What happened next was so fast it seemed like a dream.
The sissy girls screamed and jumped back from the table. Then they leaped forward and ten or twenty blurs of white and pink lunch pails flashed through the air, followed by an ear-shattering banging as the kits slammed onto the tabletop, one on top of the other for what seemed like hours—and then everything grew silent.
Mikey and I stared at each other, unable to believe what had just happened. I felt like someone had pulled out everything from inside me, leaving me all hollow and sick.
Well, old man Scott sure paddled us and promised us we’d be sweeping the halls for a month.
I’d probably blown my deer hunting for the next five years, but none of that bothered me none at all compared to the realization of what we had done to Legs. I’d never forget that poor old bug.
“What makes it so bad,” Mikey mumbled, his voice breaking. “We didn’t even get the chance to bury him.” A tear ran down his cheek.
“Yeah. Them cafeteria ladies just wiped him up in a piece of paper and threw him in the garbage. It—it just don’t seem right. He was a good little feller.”
“I wish it was me instead.” He looked at me, and I looked at him. I knew just how he felt.
We snuffled and wiped at the tears in our eyes.