Megan had already found a bee, a ladybug, a sulphur butterfly, and a grasshopper. She really wanted to make honor roll this semester.
Mr. Gunson had handed out the list of required bugs in 3rd period. "You must include one of each insect on the list to earn an 'A' on this assignment. Don't tell me you can't hurt a butterfly. This is 7th grade, people, and I expect 7th grade work."
That evening, Megan stalked the fields behind her house with her brother's old butterfly net in one hand and a mason jar in the other. A backpack over her shoulder hid the implements used for the actual killing: her mom's nail polish remover and a bag of cotton balls from under the sink.
She repeated the same steps each time she caught something in the net. Transfer bug from net to jar, add toxic cotton ball, wait.
It was usually over pretty fast, but this time was different — the lubber grasshopper was taking a lot longer to die than the other insects had. He was desperate to get out, jumping against the jar lid mightily and persistently.
Megan was captivated by the sight and sound of it, the futile industry, his tenacious grip on life. His large stony eyes seemed surprisingly full of pathos; she kept wishing for him to die so it would be over.
"Whatcha got in the jar, a leprechaun?" Megan sat up with a start to see her neighbor Allan standing only an arm's length away with Nugget on a leash by his side. Allan was smiling.
"Oh, no. It's just a, just a school thing." Megan reached out to stroke Nugget, keeping her eyes on his soft muzzle, his little pink tongue. "I have to collect bugs for Mr. Gunson's class."
"You're too pretty to be collecting bugs." He looked at her with dark, shiny eyes. Megan felt her face flush.
Allan stood silently watching her pet Nugget, and Megan felt stupid for having been so engrossed, for having looked startled in front of him.
She forced her mouth to work, forced herself to think of something to say. "Does Nugget need another bath? Because I could get the hose ...."
"Nah, not today. She hasn't been out much lately, thanks to the old nine-to-five that turned into a seven-to-seven."
Megan had no idea what that meant, and instead turned her attention back to the grasshopper still clink-clinking against the jar.
"You know, Megan, you're too good to me and Nugget," Allan continued. "You're an angel. Your family doesn't tell you that enough." He brushed his thick, dark hair out of his eyes.
Megan felt warm all over and yet frozen, too embarrassed to look at him. "This grasshopper was easy to catch. He just sat there on that railroad tie." She pointed to a two-by-four on the ground ten feet away.
Allan smiled but didn't correct her. "Isn't it funny? He's trapped in a jar and he doesn't even know he's been caught."
Nugget, tired of Megan, began sniffing her backpack instead. Megan glanced over, then turned back to see Allan's lanky frame leaning down to where she crouched. He was reaching a hand to her hair.
Megan stood up abruptly.
Allan laughed. "A leaf, silly." He held a little leaf between his thumb and a long, thickly jointed forefinger.
Megan laughed too, absently running her hand through her own hair now. "Maybe I'm the one who needs a bath."
"Hey, I was just thinking," Allan said. "What would Mr. G think of an orb spider? Are they on your list?"
"Um, I don't think so," Megan said. "Spiders aren't insects."
Allan smiled. "Good point. Smart girl."
She beamed inside.
"I know a nature preserve where there are thousands of orb spiders. When you look up through the trees, you can see layer upon layer of them, right within reach. Ripe for the picking. It would make for some spectacular extra credit."
Megan considered this for a moment. Extra credit would be nice, but her mom wasn't likely to take her to a park just for extra credit. "Do any of those spiders live around here?"
"No big ones," Allan shook his head sadly. "This neighborhood is too young for good tree cover. All we have is saplings. Maybe your mom or dad could take you Saturday."
At this, Megan's eyes teared a little. She blinked quickly and bit the edge of her thumbnail.
Allan suddenly brightened. "Hey, I could take you over there some time .... I mean if that's not too weird."
"Oh, um ... maybe," Megan faltered.
He playfully poked her in the side. "What, you don't trust me?"
Megan giggled. "No, I mean, I think that would be fun."
Allan put an arm around her shoulder. "I know things have been hard, Meg."
She felt excited to be so close to him. She could smell his aftershave. "Would an orb spider be hard to catch?"
"No, they stay still most of the time. But when they find something to eat, they creep, creep, creep up to it." Megan felt something brushing along her collarbone lightly. "Then they POUNCE!" Allan's hand bounced off her shoulder.
He gave her a little tickle and burst out laughing.
Megan laughed too. She looked down at the jar and realized the grasshopper had stopped moving. She picked it up, studied him through the thick glass.
"Do you think he's dead, or did he just give up on the idea of getting away?" Megan asked.
Allan considered the jar for a moment. "What's the real difference? Once you're in the jar, it's just a question of time."