Seven-year-old Isabella Thompson pressed her hands into the cool, moist dirt of her grandfather's garden. She peeled away the surface like an old scab. Beneath, a reddish-brown earthworm squirmed – reaching and contracting, reaching and contracting. She pinched and pulled, straining its segmented body until it slid from its half-burrowed tunnel.
Danny Walsh – a dumb, freckled boy at school – had told her to eat worms earlier that day.
"Nu-huh," she'd replied. "You should 'cause they're slimy like boogers and you eat boogers all the time even though Miss White says not to!"
He'd stuck his tongue out.
She'd picked up a rock. "You're gross like a worm!"
But, she didn't want to think about Danny right now. Instead, she rolled the invertebrate's body between her index finger and thumb to see how tough it was. Kinda rubbery. She pressed a little harder. Black gloop escaped in a thin line.
Gross! She scrunched her nose and laughed.
Grandpa sat in the living room, on the couch. She could see him through the sliding glass door. A police officer with a grubby mustache – the one who'd driven her home from school – stood in front of him. Grandpa had asked her to go play in the yard while they talked grownup-talk. But, someone needed to appreciate her new discovery!
She brushed off her light-green sundress and darted past the azalea bushes. Grandpa's eyes looked reddened and strained. Was he crying?
She cried every once in a while. Usually to get another scoop of ice cream or another 15 minutes of screen-time with the cell phone. But she'd never seen Grandpa cry. It wasn't a grandpa-thing-to-do. Was it?
She stepped to the side so the two grown-ups couldn't see her eavesdrop. Their voices muffled behind the glassdoor.
"If there is anything we can do?" Grandpa asked, his voice breaking.
"Well, once we've lined up some suspects, we'll provide a child psychologist for the identification process... of course."
Grown-up talk was so boring.
She slid the glass door open with a swoosh. Both men turned toward her. The officer glanced down at the worm in her hand and tilted his head to the side.
"What you got there, kid?"
"I used to catch worms at your age."
"Yep. Fun fact: chop ‘em in half and they grow back as two instead of one."
"Scouts honor!" He raised his hand in a three-finger salute.
She leaned into Grandpa's knee, hugging his calf. "Is that true, Grandpa?"
He wiped a tear from his face with the back of his hand and pulled her closer. He faked a smile, kind of like when she cried but the opposite.
Why would someone fake happiness? Was there something you could get from it too?
The officer took a pale rectangular card from his inside coat pocket and slid it onto the coffee table. "Call me if she remembers any details," he said and then gave Isabella a warm wink before exiting.
Grandpa said nothing. He patted the back of her head. It felt good, but she worried because he didn't usually sit for so long without doing or saying something.
She blurted out, "We learned about butterflies in school today! Did you know they grow from worms? Miss White showed us a video all speedup. The worm hangs from a branch like this."
She held the earthworm up between her index finger and thumb. It wriggled into a j-shape as it tried to escape.
"Then, the worm sticks its feet to a stick. And it, uh, pushes a papery-light-green thing like a pinata-but-not-a-pinata through the back of its head – where you think its brain would be, but it's not. It's gross... but also neat. There aren't any guts or blood, just more papery stuff. And it keeps pushing until the whole worm—"
She was relieved he finally said something and climbed up onto his lap.
"They're not the same?"
He kissed her forehead. "Not exactly."
"Well, the caterpillar keeps doing it. Like, until all of its skin is gone and it's just papery stuff! But also, it gets shiny... like an acorn! But, not. 'Cause it's green and long and shaky with the worm – I mean caterpillar! – still trapped inside. It's met-a-ma-morph-is-size-ing!"
She held her worm up in the air triumphantly.
"What happened to Danny Walsh, Isabella?"
Her chest tightened. If she told the truth, she'd get in trouble. Maybe even big trouble!
Dark-purplish bubbles had sputtered from the back of Danny's red hair. His eyes had stared up at the clouds. She'd poked at his face with a stick and his skin had stayed dimpled instead of bouncing back. It was like he was there, but not. Like a crushed beetle beneath her sneakers. And even though gross worms had papery pinata stuff on the inside that came out their heads that eventually turned into butterflies, gross kids like Danny still just had normal brain stuff.
It was interesting... But, also something that could get her in trouble. So, by the time Miss White had walked outside to find them, Isabella had already thrown the rock into the woods and turned on the waterworks (that's what Grandpa called them when he didn't believe her).
After a pause she continued, "We were playing and..." She breathed in-and-out sharp and hard like sad people did in grown-up movies. "...he died."
She shrugged and forced a single tear to fall.
"Was there really a man in the woods, Isabella?"
She slid off Grandpa's lap and ran back into the yard. Another thing crying could get you was if you ran out of a room, no one would follow.
She returned to the hole where she'd dug up the worm and dropped it back in. She picked up a sharp rock and jabbed its tip through the center of the worm's soft flesh. It separated, wriggling in two parts, just as the police officer said it would.