A FREE SURPRISE
Bud found the box of cereal. If I’d found it, none of this would have happened. I’m smarter than Bud. He stayed back twice. I only got kept back once. But with him staying back twice, we ended up in the same grade. So we’ll be in school together for a while, unless he gets held back again. Bud and Lud, that’s us. Mom’s good with poetry. Anyway, you can see I’m smarter, both because Bud stayed back more, and because of what he did with the box.
“Cereal!” Bud shouted. He’d pushed over one of Dad’s washing machines. Dad collects machines. It’s like a hobby and a job rolled all into one. A machine’s something you can trust. That’s what Dad says. He loves anything with a motor. Whatever machine someone throws out, Dad’ll pick it up. No matter how broken it is, Dad can fix it. He keeps most of them in the backyard. We’ve got a couple acres fenced in behind the house. There are washers and dryers, lots of refrigerators—with the doors taken off the older ones, so nobody gets stuck inside. There’s ovens, too. My sister, May, used to love playing house in the backyard. She could pretend to cook, and do all sorts of stuff.
There’s cars, of course. Cars are the best machines in the world. Cars and planes are the best. We don’t have any planes. Maybe someday. Though I’ve never seen anyone throw out a plane. Wouldn’t that be cool—to see a plane sitting out on the curb next to the trash cans?
Anyway, we’d just watched this movie about a giant ape that destroys New York. It was a real old movie, but pretty good, even though you could tell the ape was fake. The ape knocked over anything that got in his way. So Bud was stomping around, thumping his chest, and knocking stuff over. Bud kind of gets wrapped up in whatever movie he’s seen. I guess he was pretending the stuff was buses and buildings. Bud tipped over a washing machine and found this old box under it. The box was half rotted on the outside. You could barely read the label. Not that I do much reading, but labels aren’t so hard.
“All right!” Bud shouted, suddenly stopping his ape act. “Snack time.”
“Leave it alone, Bud,” I said. “It’s old. It’s probably spoiled. And it’s got that junk on it from the barrels.” I pointed to the oily green puddle. This guy who’d come through town driving a big old truck gave Dad a bunch of these metal barrels for free. The problem was, someone had left all this gooey stuff in the barrels, and they leaked a lot. It must have been nasty stuff, because it killed all the grass it touched.
“Cereal can’t spoil, you idiot,” Bud said. “They make it so it’ll last forever.”
“You’re the idiot,” I told him. “And that’s a fact.”
“You are,” he said back.
I let it go. I’m not much for arguing with words, and I couldn’t think of a good answer. But I warned him again. “Let it be, Bud,” I told him. “Just leave it alone.”
“Might have a prize,” he said, picking up the box by the one corner that wasn’t soaked in slime. “Lots of cereal comes with a prize. Could be a race car or something.…”
Now, that was different. I hadn’t thought how there could be something besides cereal in the box. Which doesn’t mean Bud’s smarter. Just means I’m less greedy. I can walk by something even if there’s a prize in it. Bud, he’s got to stick his finger in every coin slot in the world. Can’t pass by a gumball machine without checking for money someone forgot. And he sends in all the sweepstakes stuff Mom and Dad get in the mail. I told him that just means we’ll get more mail. He doesn’t care. But we sure do get more mail. Tons of it. Doesn’t matter. Dad burns just about everything we get in the woodstove. Except for his car magazines. Ain’t nothing good ever came to me with a stamp on it. That’s what Dad always said. He knows lots.
Anyway, Bud picked up the box, and right away I could tell there was something wrong. The front was all puffed up, kind of bulging out like Uncle Ernie’s stomach after we finish Thanksgiving dinner. Or any other time, for that matter, when it comes to Uncle Ernie’s stomach bulging. “Careful with that,” I told Bud. “It ain’t right.” I could swear the box looked like it was moving, but I knew that couldn’t be true.
“You just want me to leave it so you can sneak back later and steal the prize,” Bud said. “You want it all to yourself.”
“Do not,” I said.
“Do, too,” he said.
I let it go. It was starting to sound like an argument. Clem and Clyde—they’re older—they argue a whole bunch. Neither one of them has enough sense to back down. It drives me crazy. So I try not to argue.
Bud grabbed the top of the box and started to rip it loose. I could have told him that was a truly stupid thing to do. The glue on top held for a second, but then the whole thing came apart so fast, it sort of exploded. The box ripped from corner to corner, and the cereal went flying all over me.
Except it wasn’t cereal making the box puff up. It wasn’t cereal that went flying all over me. It was a whole lot worse than that.
WHAT’S EATING YOU?
It happened awful fast. I mean, it was so fast, and so awful, that at first I didn’t even believe what hit me. Bugs! A box full of bugs. They smacked me all over—in the chest and on the face. I started to shout. I wasn’t scared. Just surprised. Nothing scares me. But I sure was surprised to get covered with bugs. I shut up fast when one tried to crawl from my cheek into my open mouth.
I started swatting them off. Bud, idiot that he could be, just stood there for a moment. His mouth was open. It was wide open. Heck. That’s just about always the case. He eats with it open. Makes me sick sometimes. Sleeps with it open. Breathes with it open. Of course, right now it was safe for him to have his mouth open. He wasn’t covered with bugs. I thought about throwing one into his mouth, but I was kind of busy getting them off me.
Finally, it sank in for Bud that I could use a hand. Better yet, two hands. He helped me swat at them. Even that wasn’t the greatest help. More than once he swatted them onto me instead of off. They snapped at first, when you hit them, like pretzel sticks. The thin ones, not the real thick ones. Then they squished. Once they got squished, they stopped crawling, but I still had to pick them off my shirt. It was like peeling off dried blobs of glue.
They were biting me, too. All over my chest. Not bad, like wasps can sting, but kind of like mosquitoes. It didn’t feel good, but I’ve felt worse. I went with Dad once to visit this friend of his who owned a real nice scrap yard. That man had a dog who grabbed on to my leg right above the ankle. Now, that’s a bite. Took Dad and his friend a couple minutes to pry those jaws apart. Next to that, this was nothing. Except it was a lot of nothings. Hundreds. We must have brushed and swatted for five or ten minutes before we got rid of all the bugs.
“Wow. That was awful,” Bud said, like he was the one who’d suffered.
I stared down at the torn-up cereal box. All the bugs had crawled out of it. They skittered under another washing machine. Now that I had time to look at them, I saw they were like some kind of big beetle. Sort of like a cockroach, too, but rounder. Except the head was more like a fly head. Maybe it was a fly-beetle. Guess you could call it a fleetle. Hey, that was funny. Just as funny as a joke one of the smart kids would make. I make good jokes a lot. But I don’t tell them to anyone, because I hate it if people laugh at me. I mean, if I tell a joke, how can I know what they’re laughing at? It might be the joke they think is funny. But they might be laughing at me because they think I’m stupid. Then I’d have to hit them. Which would get me in trouble. So I keep my jokes to myself, except I share them with Bud.
I looked at Bud so I could tell him the joke. Whoa! For an instant, I saw a billion Buds. It was like the world was made of Bud Mellon wallpaper. Now, there’s a scary thought. But then I blinked real hard and everything was fine. I checked my shirt again, to make sure there weren’t any more bugs on me. As far as I could tell, they were all gone.
“What do you want to do now?” Bud asked. He stared down at the box, too.
I knew what he was thinking. And I sort of felt bad for him. “Sorry you didn’t find a prize,” I told him. Bud expects the world to give him stuff. It doesn’t work that way. Nobody gives you much, if anything. But Bud is a hopeful person.
“Thanks,” he said. “Want to go climb the ovens?”
“Sure.” We had a mountain of ovens out near the back fence. Dad was always warning us to stay off them, but they were pretty solid. A friend of his brought in a crane he’d borrowed from work and helped stack them up real nicely, just like a pyramid. We climbed them a lot. It was like having a jungle gym in the backyard. But this was better, because there were tons of knobs to turn, and doors to open. We used to play hide-and-seek there all the time when we were little. Since I got my last growth spurt, I can’t hide in an oven anymore.
“Sorry about the cereal,” Bud said when we reached the top. “I didn’t mean to get you all covered with bugs.”
“That’s okay.” I stopped to pull at the neck of my T-shirt and look down at the bites on my chest. It wasn’t bad. Didn’t look any worse than the time I’d accidentally knocked down a beehive in the old shed behind the house.
“You mad?” he asked.
“Nope.” I sat back and enjoyed the view at the top of the mountain of ovens. I could see Dad on a ladder at the side of the house, doing something with a saw. I think he was trying to put in some air vents, because the attic gets so hot. Hey, speaking about hot things, I thought of another joke. It’s a good one. They call the top of the stove a range. And that’s what they call a bunch of mountains, too. We were on the range range. That was funny. I told Bud. He didn’t get it at first. But I explained it to him and then he laughed.
I feel good when Bud laughs at a joke, though sometimes I think he doesn’t get it and just laughs ’cause he knows he’s supposed to. But it still feels good. As long as it’s Bud laughing. As I said, I don’t feel good if other people laugh at me. Of course, that doesn’t happen much. At least, not if I can hear them. People in this town know better than to laugh at any Mellon. We stick together. That’s what family is all about. Mess with one Mellon, you mess with us all. Of course, they talk about us, too. I hear stuff all the time. People whisper, but I’ve got pretty good hearing. That’s how come I know so many different words for stupid.
But I hadn’t climbed the mountain to think about other people. I’d climbed up to relax. I stretched out across two oven tops and enjoyed the sunlight. I didn’t have a care or a problem in the world. Life was just fine. Just perfect.
Of course, things can change. That’s a fact.
Copyright © 2014 by David Lubar