Mom and Dad had company over. I didn’t know much about the Robinsons, only that they didn’t have any kids my age. If they did I wouldn’t have had to chase the football when I practiced kickoffs, or we could have played Frisbee, or even had a water fight. Water fights were the best on hot summer days, and today was a scorcher.
Still, I couldn’t waste my time sitting in the house. Summer was special-made for playing outside–there were bugs to catch, creeks to splash through, trees to climb, and the sun was like a slow-motion replay of an out-of-the-park home run hit so high the ball might never come down on the other side of the stadium. Those last bits of twilight around 7:30, 8:00 were the greatest. Not a chance I would make it home in time for dinner.
I’d munched on mulberries all afternoon, but after dark my stomach really started to rumble. I sailed through the tall grass, following backdoor porch lights like buoys, until I was home. The screen door clapped shut behind me, and my eyes landed on a wrapped up plate of ham and egg noodles with a slice of pineapple. While I was nuking the food Mom and Mrs. Robinson came into the kitchen for ice.
“I can’t believe how much you’ve grown,” Mrs. Robinson told me, wide-eyed.
“Tallest of the whole team and still growing like a weed!” Mom added proudly.
They laughed and I smiled.
“Where’ve you been hiding all day?” Mom’s friend asked.
I pulled the plate from the microwave a few seconds before it beeped. “Outside.”
“And you look like you’ve brought half the outside inside. You can’t eat dinner like that. Go take a shower, and I’ll keep your ham in the oven.” Mom took the plate from my hand and pulled a leaf from my hair as I passed.
They laughed again, and from the hallway I heard Mrs. Robinson say, “Don’t forget to wash behind your ears!”
What did she mean? I thought about it all the way to the bathroom, feeling behind my ears gently at first then rubbing my fingers over the skin to see if anything came off. I leaned over the sink and looked in the mirror. I folded both ears forward, titled my head this way and that, but couldn’t find anything. I thought my eyes might flip backwards inside my head if I looked any harder.
Just what was back there!?
Was it sweat? Dirt? Dried up mud from the creek? Another leaf like the one Mom pulled from my hair?
My imagination began to whirl.
Could it be a grass stain? Or a whole blade? Flakes of tree bark? A twig? A juicy, black mulberry, even?
I shucked my clothes on the tile and hopped in the shower. I wiggled around so the water pounded at the backs of my ears. Whatever was back there, it had to wash off. Then I’d have a look at it.
What if it was a bug? An ant or a ladybug or a big old caterpillar? I watched the drain but nothing washed down.
Maybe it was something like a tick or burr holding on for dear life under the hard streams of water. Or a spider web? No, a creepy, crawly spider! No. A bird feather? Or a whole bird?
It could be anything!
I remembered the creek. Maybe a water strider or a minnow had jumped up behind my ear. No way. Whatever it was, it had to have an awful strong grip. It would need something like claws or talons.
I could almost feel it pulling at my ears. The scissor-sharp pincers of a cranky, old crab? Who knows where that creek went!
Could it be an octopus with eight huge arms and big, sticky suction cups? Or maybe, just maybe, it was a mermaid using magic to make itself invisible in the mirror!
What about a dragon? An enormous, saw-toothed dragon with thousands of blue scales so you couldn’t see it flying down at you from the sky! It could be waiting behind me for a chance to breathe fire and burn my hair to a crisp!
I leaped out of the shower and checked the mirror again. I dried off and scrubbed extra hard behind my ears. Back downstairs Mom and Dad were sitting on the couch, reading. The Robinsons had gone home.
“Dad,” I said, “do you see anything behind my ears?” He slid down his glasses with a hmmm and an ooohh.
I bit my lip. Maybe he’d found it!
Then in a flash of goose bumps he ran his fingers over my neck to the top of my head where he tousled my hair and said, “Not a thing. Clean as a whistle.”
What a relief!
I ate my dinner and headed to bed. And as I crawled under the covers I wondered what I might bring home behind my ears tomorrow…