Julie’s Special Afternoon
by Mary Brunini McArdle
“It really happened, Mark. I know you don’t believe me, but it really happened.”
Julie lay cuddled on the sofa with her fiancé, a winter storm in progress outside. They had been drinking hot chocolate and watching movies.
“Julie, you just think it happened. You were a kid. You probably had a really vivid imagination.”
“I did not. I don’t now. I’m a scientist. It happened. I can remember every single detail. You’re the only person I’ve ever told about it.”
* * *
Julie loved being eight years old. Eight meant she could play outdoors until five in the afternoon and be trusted to finish her homework before dinner. And Julie could reach things better, so she could put the dishes up instead of loading them. Now her younger brother Eric had to clear the table every night.
Julie’s family had a fenced-in back yard so big that once you were at its edge you couldn’t be seen from the house. In the circle of oak trees, you were in another world. School had just let out for the summer and Julie didn’t have any homework at all.
“I wonder what she does all afternoon,” her mother remarked one day.
“You were a little girl once,” Julie’s father pointed out. “What did you do?”
“I played with dolls.”
“Julie doesn’t play with dolls,” Eric put in. “She plays with bugs.”
Eric was right. Julie liked small animals. Her favorites were spiders and insects. But she spent most of her time watching ants. She baited the big hills under the oak trees with sugar so the ants would come out, or put straws in the holes so the ants could walk through. Sometimes she made whole bridges of straws to channel the ants in different directions. She usually ended up taking the straws out because she felt sorry for the ants when they became confused.
Imagine her surprise one afternoon when she heard a voice coming from below. “Julie, can you see me?”
She peered at the ground. Am I dreaming? she thought. Suddenly she was standing at the foot of an enormous mountain of soil, with a line of grinning ants marching up and down. One of them touched her face gently with his antennae.
“I was wondering when you would visit.”
“How... who — ?”
“Call me ‘Ant.’ That will do nicely.”
The speaker was chocolate brown. His voice was low and melodious, like that of Julie’s grandfather, who was known to be a gentleman.
“Would you like to tunnel?” Ant asked.
“Wow!” Julie shouted. “You mean I get to go inside your ant hill?”
“Oh, yes. I’ve been dying for us to get together. Later you can reciprocate.”
“You know — return the favor. Come, Julie, before your family calls you.”
Julie followed Ant laboriously up the mountain. Her clothes were covered with dust by the time she and Ant reached the top.
“It looks very dark,” she remarked, when they arrived at the hole.
“It really isn’t after you’ve been inside a little while. This is where we store our food, and over there’s the nursery.”
“Can I see the babies?”
“If you’re very quiet.”
“Why, they look just like you, except they’re so pale! Julie exclaimed.
“They’ll darken up. Now I’ll show you our herd.”
“Of aphids. We milk them, like cows. We’ve tunneled all the way into the oak tree now.”
Ant offered to let Julie try milking, but when she saw how big the aphids were, she was too scared.
“Do all ants have herds?” she asked.
“Oh, no. There are many different kinds of ants. Would you like some refreshments?”
He led Julie to a chamber where he set out several strange items, mostly liquid.
Julie tasted everything, not wishing to be rude, but she found it difficult to swallow the aphid milk.
“You’re a pretty color,” she said. “But I’ve seen black ants and red ants too.”
“As I told you, there are many kinds. We live near trees and eat the sap.”
Yuk! Julie thought. Have I been drinking tree juice?
Even in the tunnel, Julie could hear her mother calling. “It’s late,” Julie said. “I’d better go.”
“When you reach the entrance, you’ll be your normal size again.”
“Ant, I want to entertain you, too. Only you’re so tiny.”
“If you come for me, I’ll be as big as you. But no one else will be able to see me.”
“Julie!” her mother exclaimed. “You’re filthy! You’d better change your clothes. Your father is taking you and Eric to McDonald’s for supper.”
Perfect! Julie thought. I won’t have to figure out a way to — to reciprocate. I’ll take Ant to McDonald’s with us.
She washed and changed and raced back to the oak trees. “Ant?”
She jumped as he appeared, the size of an eight-year-old. He had polished himself until he was so shiny he reflected the trees.
Julie scrambled onto the back seat, holding the door for Ant. “Shut the door so we can go,” Eric demanded.
“You certainly are dreamy this evening, Julie,” her father commented.
Naturally Julie couldn’t tell them she was trying not to slam the door on Ant’s foot.
It wasn’t easy getting into the restaurant either. Eric was always cranky when he was hungry. So his father wasn’t as patient as usual.
“This is delightful,” Ant said, as he slid into the booth with Julie.
“We’ll have to share,” Julie whispered. “There’s no way we can order for four.”
It wasn’t long before Ant discovered the packets of sugar on the table. He opened them happily, smearing the sugar in the drops of moisture from Julie’s cup.
Eric spilled his Coke, distracting his father enough for Julie to break up some of her bun for Ant. He nibbled a bit, but he seemed much more interested in the sugar.
By the time the family had eaten, there were a dozen empty packets next to Julie’s place, and a whole lot of wet sugar.
“Julie, I hope you haven’t been putting sugar in your Coke,” her father said.
Julie looked helplessly at Ant and shrugged.
“Julie! Don’t look out the window when I’m talking to you!”
“Sorry, Daddy. Um — I’ve been experimenting — you know — like what salt would taste like on cereal and — and sugar on hamburgers. It’s fun.”
“I don’t think wasting that much sugar is very nice, Julie.”
“I won’t do it again,” Julie mumbled.
“My dear, I wouldn’t have gotten you in trouble for the world,” Ant put in.
“Who’re you talking to?” Eric asked.
“Hey, kids, it’s time to go home.”
“But, Daddy, Julie was talking to the wall — “
Ant took one last bite of sugar, delicately managing his front feet, his antennae wiggling with pleasure.
Julie’s father rummaged for his car keys. Luckily he wasn’t paying attention to Eric.
“That was simply wonderful,” Ant said in the back seat. “Thank you, Julie.”
“You’re welcome. Will I see you again?”
“Now she’s talking to nothing in the car, Daddy!”
“Eric, be quiet for a minute. The traffic’s really heavy.”
Ant and Julie waited until Eric was in the house before attempting any further conversation. She reached out to touch Ant’s face as he caressed hers with his antennae.
“Come on in, Julie. It’s late,” her father commanded.
“Yes, Daddy. Ant, I wanted to know if I would see you again.”
“I’m afraid you’re going to grow up,” Ant said sadly. “These encounters are extremely rare. Goodbye, Julie.”
“Goodbye, Ant. I’ll never forget you.”
* * *
Mark burst out laughing.
“You’re my fiancé and my best friend, Mark,” Julie said, indignant. “You shouldn’t be laughing at me. I’m telling you about a remarkable occurrence and you’re laughing at me.”
“I’m sorry, Julie. I just can’t bring myself to believe this.”
“I didn’t make it up, Mark.”
“You could have. You know all about ’em — ants, I mean. You’re an entomologist.”
“I have an added advantage, Mark. I didn’t just study them; I knew one of them. Personally.”
“If you say so, sweetheart. If you say so.”
Copyright © 2005 by Mary Brunini McArdle