When Tillie traded her queen-size bed for a king-size hammock, Uncle Quentin bet her that she couldn’t go one week without falling out.
For six days she proved him wrong.
Then came Thursday.
On Thursday morning, an unexpected tapping roused Tillie from her dreams. Startled, she shot straight up in her hammock, spun three times, and landed in a heap on the pine floor. With her face buried in her fuzzy snail slippers, she listened again for the sound; the tapping grew from a slight repetitive click into a full-on knock. It was coming from her window. Tillie hopped up, unlatched the window, and gave one panel a shove.
“I think I’m being killed!” a voice said.
Tillie scanned the garden, but saw no one. “Who’s that yelling?” she asked.
“It’s me!” came the sharp reply.
The closeness of the voice made Tillie jump. She glanced down at the windowsill and spied a tiny ladybug with her front two legs cupped over her mouth like a makeshift megaphone. The first thing Tillie noticed about this particular ladybug – aside from her rather shrill speaking voice – was that her spots were green instead of black.
“That window nearly crushed me,” the ladybug said.
“Sorry about that. I didn’t realize you were down there.”
“You should try to be more careful.”
Tillie never enjoyed being scolded, especially by insects. “Did you want something?” she asked
“You should call me Ophelia,” said the ladybug.
Tillie silently counted to ten. “How can I help you, Ophelia?”
“Before I tell you, let me first confirm your identity,” Ophelia said. “I would hate to tell my troubles to the wrong person. Humans can be so gossipy. Are you, in fact, Tillie McGwinn of Red Sky Cottage?”
“This is Red Sky Cottage,” Tillie said, “and I’m the only person who lives here.”
“A simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ will suffice,” the ladybug said.
Tillie gritted her teeth. “Yes, I’m Tillie McGwinn of Red Sky Cottage.”
“Good!” the ladybug said. “I came to speak to you because I’ve heard that you are a rarity among humans – a friend to all insects everywhere.”
Tillie mulled over this description, alarmed by its generalness. Truth be known, praying mantises creeped her out more than a little. Not wanting to be contrary, however, she nodded in agreement. “I suppose that’s true.”
Ophelia placed one of her many hands on her rotund waist. “Well, are you a friend to all insects everywhere or are you not? You did help Josiah the honey bee find an untouched patch of flowers last summer to save him from the wrath of his queen, did you not?”
“I did, yes,” Tillie agreed.
“And when Tanaka-san the Japanese beetle needed lessons in conversational English, you did give them to her for free, did you not?”
“Yes,” Tillie agreed again.
“And when…” Ophelia began.
“Yes! Fine! You’re right!” Tillie interrupted. “I’m ‘a friend to all insects everywhere!’ Now, would you mind telling me what you want?”
Ophelia started to answer, but burst into tears before she could finish her sentence. Because ladybugs produce tears three times as large as their own bodies, Tillie was afraid that the resulting waterfall might wash Ophelia right off the windowsill. She looked around for a handkerchief, but realized that all of her handkerchiefs would be much too large for the tiny bug to use, except perhaps as a tent.
Tillie patted Ophelia’s red and green back with one pinkie finger. “Things can’t be all that bad,” she said.
“Oh, yes things can be. Just look at me. My spots have turned green and I’m hideous.”
“Just because your spots are green instead of black doesn’t make you hideous.”
“Yes it does…” Ophelia insisted, sniffing and wiping her cheeks with the backs of four hands. “Imagine if your hair suddenly turned blue one morning. How would you feel about that?”
The idea of having blue hair sounded wonderful to Tillie, but she knew Ophelia would not agree. “But in your case, your red shell and green spots look festive. Very Christmas-y.”
“That’s part of the problem!” Ophelia insisted. “I can’t celebrate Christmas every day of my life. Think of all the money I’d have to spend on presents and candy alone!”
“Christmas every day would get a little old,” Tillie agreed. She spoke from experience; she had once celebrated Christmas every day for a month and gotten sick on candy canes by the end of it.
“When did you first notice the color change?” Tillie asked.
Ophelia began to cry again, sobbing gently between deep breaths. “This morning. I just woke up and my spots had turned this hideous shade.” The tiny bug’s eyes were nearly as red as her shell now.
“If you stop crying, I promise to help you in any way I can.”
Ophelia sniffed. “Truly?”
Tillie stood up straight and tall and placed her right hand over her heart. “Truly,” she repeated. Feeling that the promise needed a bit more formality, she saluted with two fingers.
“Oh, thank you!” Ophelia said. “I feel better already – although slightly dehydrated.”
“Come in and have a drink of water, then.”
Ophelia glanced nervously from side to side. “That bird of yours isn’t around is he? All the other insects told me to avoid your bird.”
Tillie shook her head. “Lucius is in the other room on his perch. He probably isn’t even awake yet, the lazy toucan.”
“If it’s all the same to you, I’d rather just stay out here in the fresh air. Helps me… um… think.”
Tillie yawned wide and shrugged. “Suit yourself. I’ll get dressed and come outside. We can go get some breakfast in Welldry, if you like.”
“Okay,” said Ophelia, smiling weakly. “I’ll meet you on the bridge that crosses the brook.” The ladybug paused for a moment, as if screwing up her courage. “Sorry if I was rude.” She turned on what pass for heels in ladybugs, spread her wings, and flew towards the bridge.
Tillie walked to her wardrobe and opened the doors. She was greeted by the chiming of empty hangers. A hand-written note was stuck inside one of the doors with a bit of chewed gum. Tillie pulled the note free and read it aloud.
Please don’t forget to do laundry on Wednesday. Otherwise, you’ll be entirely out of clothes on Thursday. Also, don’t forget to go to Uncle Quentin’s on Thursday. That’s his glass eye’s birthday.
Determined to make the best of the situation, Tillie leaned as far as she dared into the old wardrobe. It smelled like cedar and spearmint. In its deepest recesses she found three outfits, which were really just old Halloween costumes: a vampire’s cape and fake fangs, a cowgirl costume, and an elephant suit complete with bendable trunk.
Tillie tapped her pursed lips with one finger and made her choice. “Thursday is a good day to be a cowgirl.”
She slipped into her brown trousers, fringed black chaps, western shirt, embroidered vest, and red leather boots, and placed the ten-gallon hat atop her head. She even tied the lasso to her belt loop, ready to rope any little dogies that happened to wander across her path. To really get into character, she let out a “Yeeeeeehaw!”
As she entered her front parlor, Lucius sat on his perch, working intently to open a stubborn sunflower seed with his multi-colored beak.
“Good morning, Lucius.” Tillie called to him. “Scared any bugs lately?”
The bird stopped trying to crack the seed and stared at her. His eyes widened in disbelief as he looked her up and down.
“Yes, I’m a cowgirl today.”
Lucius opened his beak for a second and looked as if he wanted to say something. As all people in their right minds know, however, toucans are unable to speak, which makes one wonder why they’re not called “toucan’ts.”
Tillie ignored Lucius’ disapproval and walked out of the cottage. The sun was still low in the east, but already the flowers in the garden were open and the birds were singing in the low-hanging trees. The stream where she had agreed to meet Ophelia flowed directly through the center of the garden, creating a burbling that added to the birds’ songs.
“Ophelia,” she called , stepping onto the wooden bridge. “I’m here now.”
There was no response.
“Ophelia!” she yelled again. “Sorry it took me so long, but I had a slight problem with my boots.”
Still no answer came.
Tillie inspected the railing of the little bridge, but saw no sign of the insect. She placed one hand atop her eyebrows as a sun visor and scanned the cloudless sky. Although she didn’t see any insects, she did see the silhouette of a bird in the distance – a silhouette that looked suspiciously like the outline of an owl. It can’t be an owl, she told herself. They only come out at night.
“Are you here, Ophelia?” she asked one last time.
“I’ve been stood up,” Tillie concluded. With a burst of frustrated energy, she jumped into the air, grabbed a handful of leaves from an overhanging tree, and tossed them over the bridge’s railing into the clear brook below. As she watched the leaves shoot the rapids by Uncle Quentin’s favorite black elm tree, her thoughts drifted to banana and chocolate chip pancakes. At least I can go get breakfast now. No bug, no problem.
Then she glanced from the water to the bank and noticed something strange. Uncle Quentin’s black elm tree was no longer black; it, like Ophelia’s spots, had turned a sickly shade of green.