The Lion and the Ladybug by Jill Penrod by Jill Penrod - Read Online

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The Lion and the Ladybug - Jill Penrod

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Chapter One

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On the first morning I can remember the Kentons, my little brother Finn and I sat at the end of our driveway watching the truck unload their stuff. They didn’t have very much, so they didn’t have a big truck, which was too bad. We wanted to see a big truck. It was cool to watch movers unload refrigerators and washers and sofas, because they looked so strong when they did, and Finn and I wanted to be strong someday, big and tough like our daddy, who was the sheriff. But the Kentons just had a small truck, and mostly boxes came out, box after box that all looked the same. I had no idea how a family could move in without furniture, so we watched closely, ever hopeful, but it was just boxes.

Mom had given us freeze pops, taken our shirts, and warned us to stay out of the way in our own driveway, so I slurped a purple freeze pop and Finn a green one while we watched. Mom said the new family across the street had lived there before, and I guess that explained them only having boxes, but I’d never heard of someone moving out and back into their own house.

We were hoping the family had boys, but first we saw a girl. She was probably my age. Her parents parked a blue van in the driveway, and her dad got out. He walked funny, holding a cane, and it made me think he was old, maybe her grandpa and not her dad, but he didn’t look old. He looked like a dad, but one with a funny leg and a cane. Then the mom got out, and she wasn’t funny at all. She was really pretty, for a mom, with a lot of red curls that blew in the morning breeze. She had a pretty smile. She smiled at the man with the cane, and he smiled back, and together they opened the van doors and reached in for the kids.

That was when we saw the girl. She had blond hair like her dad, and she hopped out and looked around without a smile. Instead, she stared at the house, then at her dad, and then she turned and looked at Finn and me. She took a couple steps towards us and stopped.

Hey, she said.

Hey, I said back, pulling the freeze pop out of my mouth. I realized Finn had green juice on his chest, but I thought I was clean. I’m Leo.

She shrugged. I’ve met you. Don’t you remember?

I squinted. No.

She pointed to the house next to her house. My grandma lives there. We visit sometimes, but not for a while. I guess girls remember better than boys.

Finn laughed at that, and I glared at him.

We play with a lot of kids, I said. It wasn’t true, but I said it anyway. I don’t remember your name.

Meg, she said. And we’re moving in today.

I figured, I said. She shrugged again and walked back toward the house. I felt silly for not remembering her.

Then a boy came out of the van, and I remembered him. He was Finn’s age, and he had red hair like his mom. And that made me remember playing with them in the snow once. I guess they had visited at Christmas. And I remembered the girl was bossy.

Two more kids came out of the car. One was a boy who was little, maybe four or five. And then there was a baby, and the mom put her on her hip and headed into the house. The man with the cane, though, walked next door, and pretty soon the old people from next door were in the yard talking to the kids. I guessed those were Meg’s grandparents. And then the old lady from the other side came out, and she acted like a grandma, too, and that made no sense. How was this girl related to everyone over there?

Finn finished his freeze pop and went toward our back yard to play on the swings, but I kept watching. Mom called me, and I turned to find her coming out with more freeze pops.

Maybe those kids would like one, she said. Ask them.

I took the freeze pops while Mom went back inside. She was kind of scared of people, so she always asked me to do things like offer freeze pops or answer the door when the bell rang. It was funny that she was scared, since Dad was the sheriff. He had a gun and could protect her against anything. But I guess he was usually at work, so she could feel scared.

I ran across the street with the freeze pops, and I asked the man with the cane if his kids could eat them. He smiled and said yes, and he called the kids together and watched me pass out the treats. The littlest boy had to sit to eat his, and the baby didn’t get one, but the other two stood with me and said thank you.

I’m Mr. Kenton, the man said. And this is Meg, Quen, and Neville. I guess Meg will be in your class in the fall. And Quen will be in your brother’s class.

I nodded. The guy knew us.

I’m Leo, I said, but I figured he knew that. How did adults know so much? And Finn is in the back yard. Did you live here once and then come back?

We did, Mr. Kenton said. I work at colleges, and I move a lot, but I can’t make myself sell this house. This house was where I became me.

I wasn’t sure what he meant, but I didn’t say that. I wanted to ask about his leg, because it looked like he’d hurt it, but it wasn’t wrapped or anything. It was hot, so he was wearing shorts, and his leg looked fine, but it moved funny, a little twisted.

Terry, his wife called, and he went toward the house, telling the kids to stay outside with their freeze pops.

So, Meg said. We’ll be in school together. I’m good at math.

I shrugged. I wasn’t. Well, I’m a good speller.

I’m not, she said. She smiled, and it was a pretty smile. It was a smile filled with trouble. I spell things wrong a lot.

Why are the old people all in your yard? I asked.

My grandmas both live here. That one is Mommy’s mom, and those two are my daddy’s parents.

I nodded. She was going to live between her grandparents. That was really cool. I wondered if she’d get fresh cookies every day.

Okay, I said. I guess I should go home. My daddy’s the sheriff.

Really? Quen asked. His shirt was covered in red juice. His daddy should have taken off his shirt like my mom had taken mine. Does he shoot people?

He has a gun, I said. He can shoot bad people if he wants to.

My daddy teaches college, Quen said. He can’t shoot anybody.

Meg gave Quen a long look. Quentin, why would Daddy want to shoot someone?

Well, if they were hurting us. If they were bad men.

Meg rolled her eyes. Anyway, today we’re supposed to stay close and help out. But maybe we can come over sometimes?

I can come to your house, I said. Mom gets scared around company, but we can play in your yard. Finn, too.

Meg just nodded. That’s good. It’s a good yard, because we can use my grandmas’ yards, too. Have you been in my back yard?

I don’t know, I said. I think we just played out front in the snow.

Right. When we were six, I think. Well, Daddy teaches about plants in colleges, and he grows stuff. He and Mom spend lots of time in the yards where we live, and it’s always like a fairyland in our yard.

I laughed. And you think I want to play in a fairyland?

Quen shrugged, and Meg rolled her eyes.

Tomorrow you come and see, she said. You’ll like it.

I wasn’t sure of that, but I watched them go inside, and I went to my yard to play with Finn. It wasn’t a fairy yard, but it had swings and balls, and it was a good yard. Meg was going to be trouble, I thought. But I didn’t care. There weren’t many kids around, and Mom worried if we went too far. She’d said we could go play with Meg and her brothers, and I didn’t know why she liked them, but it didn’t matter. Summer had just gotten a whole lot more fun, and I was willing to deal with bossy Meg to play.

I had no idea that bossy Meg and her family would make such a difference in my life. I didn’t know it, of course, and wouldn’t see it for a long time, but God had just saved my life. Without that first day and that first freeze pop, I might not have seen adulthood at all. And I had no idea how pivotal that day had been, because really, who sees the pivotal days for what they truly are?

Meg’s yard did turn out to be a fairyland, and I loved it. So did Finn. For the next couple weeks we spent most of the daytime hours out there. Her yard and her grandmas’ yards were all connected, and they had paths and swings and gardens. Berry bushes had green berries on them, not ripe yet. There were two ponds with fish, one that we could put our feet in. Gardens were filled with little vegetable plants, and lots of bushes and plants with flowers grew everywhere. One of the grandma yards had tall trees in the back and a path through them, and there were little twinkle lights back there that flashed at night. Meg called it the fairy garden. Mom didn’t like us out after dark, but she let us go one night when Mr. Kenton came over and asked if we could stay for a late dinner. He was home all the time right now, waiting to start teaching in the fall, and he and his wife spent a lot of time in the gardens laughing.

At my house, there wasn’t much laughing. My mom was staying inside more, and my dad was grumpy. He worked a lot, and then he came home and acted angry. He wanted Mom to go out. He didn’t want us to be gone across the street so much, and he yelled at Mom about it. Finn and I didn’t know why they were so mean to each other, and we spent even more time outside. When Dad was at work, we went across the street. When Dad was home, we usually stayed in the back yard, wishing our yard was a fairyland with the Kenton kids in it, but it wasn’t. It was kind of lonely, really. But we played on the swings, and it was okay.

One day Finn had a fever, so he stayed inside, but I walked across the street and into the back yard. Mrs. Kenton had said I could do that, that I didn’t have to knock on the door every time I came over, so I went around the big house to the back. The houses over here were big and old, and Meg’s was the biggest. It had a tower room in the back, and I thought that was cool. I hadn’t been in there, but I asked Meg if the walls were round, and she said yes. I was jealous of that round room that looked down on the whole neighborhood.

Today I didn’t see any kids outside, but Mr. Kenton was in the back garden weeding around the berry bushes. He had a friendly smile, and I liked him. I thought he liked Finn and me, even though Mom and Dad said we came over too much and were making pests of ourselves.

Leo, Mr. Kenton said, and he smiled at me. I’m very glad to see you out here. I need a hand.

I stared at him a minute, not sure what I could do for him. I still didn’t know much about gardens. He reached out his arm and pointed to the cane, which was across the garden. I walked to the other end of the berry row and picked it up, handing it back to him. He slowly shifted his leg and pushed upright, putting one hand on my shoulder as he rose. I was careful not to move as he did.

Had no idea I’d spent so much time down there, he said. Sometimes it gets stiff when I don’t move enough.

What happened to it? I asked. I could almost hear my dad yell at me for asking a question like that, but Mr. Kenton was nice, and I wanted to know.

Birth injury, he said. Seemed I didn’t want to get born, and I had some trouble on the way. It got hurt before I even took my first breath.

So not an accident on the playground or anything?

He laughed. Nope, nothing that exciting, I’m afraid. So, you’re eight, right? Meg’s age?

Almost eight, I said. I hated to admit she was older than me, even though it was just a few weeks older.

Ah. When I first moved in next door, I was eight, too. And I had triplet sisters. And then a few years later I had triplet sisters again. Six sisters.

I grimaced. Six of them? No brothers?

He shook his head. Not a one. I’m glad I have both boys and girls, so nobody has to be alone.

You were alone?

Mr. Kenton shrugged and started down the path toward the back porch. An old man lived in this house, and he was my best friend for most of my childhood. He left the house to me. I helped him in the gardens, a lot like you and Meg and all of you help me. He had a code name. How do you feel about code names?

I laughed. Mr. Kenton could be weird sometimes. I don’t know. I never had one.

That’s a problem. Every kid should have a code name.

Do your kids have them?

"They do. But I don’t. They call me Dad. Which is good, but I wondered if I could have a code name again. My friend who lived here used to call me Gus. It’s short for Green Spider. When there are adults around, I need to be Mr. Kenton, but when it’s just us, I would like to be Gus again."

I wasn’t sure I could call Mr. Kenton Gus, but I said I would try. And do I get a name?

You do, Mr. Kenton said. He gave me a long look, and he made a spinning motion with his cane, indicating I needed to turn around. I spun in a circle, and he nodded thoughtfully. Leo. Your given name is Leo Jansen, right?

Right. Short for Leonardo.

Ah. That’s a very good name. Did you know Leo also means Lion?

I nodded.

Well, I can see a little lion in you, Leo. But it’s still young. Like a cub. Would you be offended if I called you Cub?

I shook my head. I liked it. Do you think I’ll grow into a lion?

I most certainly do, and then we’ll change that name. But for now, it’s best we call you Cub, keep that future lion under wraps until he’s ready to come out.

Can Finn have a code name, too? I asked.

He can. I’ll have to think about that one.

The back door opened, and Meg came out. She was wearing pink shorts. She liked pink. Her hair was in a ponytail with a pink bow, too.

Hey, Daddy, she said. Mommy asked me if you were still out here. It’s time for lunch.

Mr. Kenton—Gus—looked at me and winked. Well, Cub, looks like the lady folk have need of us. You want to stay and eat with us?

Cub? Meg asked. Why are you calling him a cub? He’s a boy.

Mr. Kenton laughed. That he is. Where is Quen?

He’s not feeling good today. Mommy sent him to bed. Nev is still sick, too.

Then maybe we should eat out here, Mr. Kenton said. You two stay out here a minute. I’ll be right back with lunch. Cub, you can stay?

Mom didn’t care if I ate over here. I did it a lot. Since Finn was sick and Neville and Quen were sick, it seemed we’d have a little group for lunch today, and that was fine with me. I didn’t mind Meg, for a girl. She was still pushy, but she made up good games that used the yard. She loved hide and seek and games where she hid toys and we looked for them.

Why is Daddy calling you a cub? she asked as we sat on the bench beside the pond. It was my favorite place in the whole yard. Big goldfish nibbled at our toes when we put them in the water.

He gave me a code name, I said proudly. He said you have one, too.

Meg rolled her eyes. He calls me Ladybug. But he’s not your daddy, so why did he give you one?

I just shrugged. He said a man gave him a name a long time ago who wasn’t his daddy, either.

Bud. He talks about Bud a lot. He used to live in this house. It’s weird living in Bud’s house. It’s almost haunted, but not with ghosts. I don’t believe in ghosts. But he and Mommy remember Bud and things they did here growing up, and it’s like it’s haunted with that old stuff.

Is the tower room haunted?

I don’t think so. I think someone has to die up there for it to be haunted, and nobody did.

Except you don’t believe in ghosts, I said. She laughed.

Yeah, that, too. You want to see the tower room? You can see half the city up there.

I did, but before we got to go up there, Mrs. Kenton brought out lunch. She, Mr. Kenton, little Savannah, and Meg all ate with me, and we laughed while we ate, because Mr. Kenton told Mrs. Kenton that he gave me a code name.

You and those names, Mrs. Kenton said. She looked at me. He and Bud would never tell me why they called each other Bud and Gus, not until I was all grown up. They kept that secret for a long time.

So you knew Mr. Kenton when he was little, I said. I didn’t think my mom and dad had known each other that long. I thought they met in college.

We met when we were your ages, Mr. Kenton said. He looked at me and then Meg, and I looked at Meg and grimaced. I couldn’t imagine growing up and marrying Meg. That seemed kind of yucky. She was bossy now. I could only imagine she’d be bossier when she was big.

So, do you have plans this afternoon? Mrs. Kenton asked Mr. Kenton.

I need to pick up some things from the hardware store, Mr. Kenton said. Then I need to head to the campus plots. Doing a little research this summer before the semester starts.

I didn’t know what he was talking about, exactly, but pretty soon we’d finished eating, and Mrs. Kenton went back inside to watch over the sick kids. Mr. Kenton went away, and Meg and I sat at the pond again.

Leo, why are we never at your house? Meg asked.

My mom doesn’t like company.

But why? I’m not mean. Quen, either. Neville can be bad, I guess, but he’s just four.

I shrugged. I didn’t know how to explain my mom. She was just my mom. I don’t know. She worries about people coming over. And Dad... I shrugged again. I didn’t want to tell her my parents weren’t nice any more. Dad wasn’t nice to Finn and me right now, either. Mom said he was just tired because elections were coming up, and he had to work hard to stay the sheriff.

Is he scary? He’s big and has a gun.

I laughed. Meg, my dad is the sheriff. He’s a good guy with a gun. A hero.

Meg nodded. Okay, I guess. But he looks a little bit mean.

I wasn’t sure what to say about that. Lately, he’d actually been a little bit mean.

We can’t play much today with everyone gone, Meg said. I hope we don’t get sick, too. Do you know any games for two?

I did, because I just had one brother, so I’d played a lot of games for two. We played a while, running around the yard and the gardens, finally stopping at the pond again. This time, we sat on the ground and put our whole legs in the water, letting the fish tickle our feet.

I like this pond, I said. It’s the best place in the world.

In the world? Meg rolled her eyes. Hey, let’s go to the tower room now.

I was happy with that idea, but my mom yelled from across the street, so I had to go. I wondered if I would ever get to the tower room. But now I had a code name, and I’d helped Mr. Kenton with his cane, and I knew I would have plenty of chances to come back. And even if Meg was bossy, she was kind of fun, too. And she was good to talk to, and that was cool. I hadn’t had friends who were girls, and it wasn’t bad.

Chapter Two

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Red rover, red rover, let Ladybug come over, Finn called. Meg took a step back and ran between Finn and Neville’s arms, because that was the weak link. They went down, and she laughed and did a little happy dance, which made me laugh. Mom had pointed out that Meg had no girl friends, and she thought that was sad, but I didn’t think it bothered her. She liked to boss around boys. And she liked to win games.

Mom called us, and Finn and I ran across the street. It was almost time for dinner, and Dad’s car was in the drive, his sheriff car. He’d let us run the lights a couple times, but he never let us run the sirens, because he said that would scare people on the road with us. I still thought it would be fun.

Mom was in the doorway, and she looked funny. Kind of sad. Finn stopped running and let me go first. He always worried about Mom. And since Dad had been mean lately, he always let me go first, although Dad wasn’t mean to us. Grumpy, but that was just his thing.

You boys spend too much time over there, Dad said when we got to the table. Spend more time here.

But we can’t play here, Finn said. Mom won’t let them all over here. And it’s no fun alone.

You can’t spend all your time there, Dad said. He looked at Mom. Traci, let them have friends over here. It’s time you lived a little. Go out. Have people over. Stop hiding out here.

Mom said nothing. She just nodded, and Dad looked angry.

That’s it? A nod? Trace, you need to talk to me. It’s too quiet around here. You sulk about whatever, and the boys are gone. It’s like this place is just a shell.

I’m sorry, Mom said. I’ll try harder.

Dad growled in his throat, and he went to the fridge and got a beer. He’d had a lot of them lately, with every meal and then sometimes afterward. And when he drank them, he sometimes got angry. I thought they smelled bad, and Mom told me they weren’t good for him. But she never said that to him. She said almost nothing to him. It was different from the Kenton’s, where the parents talked to each other and talked to us and laughed a lot. I thought they liked each other and their kids and even Finn and me, and we weren’t anyone special to them. I was a little jealous of them.

So, I said. Dad, Mr. Kenton asked me if we went to church. I didn’t know what church was, so I think we don’t do that, right?

Dad growled again. Great. No, we don’t do that. And he needs to keep that to himself. No need to go pushing his ideas on you. Maybe you should stay home, Leo.

But, Dad, it’s boring here.

Boring. You have a brother. More than I ever had. I had nobody. You be happy with what you have.

I nodded. Dad’s voice was getting angry, and I didn’t want that.

I will. But I can still go over there and play with the kids? Meg and I will be in class together. We should be friends.

Friends with the girl across the street. Dad shrugged. I guess so.

We didn’t stay at the table for long, and then we went into the back yard until it was bath time. Mom ran our bath, and we got clean and went to our rooms to read. And then the yelling started. Finn and I shared a room, and he sat up and looked at me in the darkness.

What is that? he asked, although I knew he knew what it was. Dad was yelling at Mom. I’d heard it a couple times, but only after Finn was asleep. I couldn’t tell what Dad said, but he was angry. I never heard Mom yell back, but that made sense. Mom didn’t talk much. Tonight he was yelling early, and then we heard something hit the floor or the wall. It sounded like someone had thrown something. That was new and scary, but I tried to pretend it wasn’t, because Finn was getting scared. I didn’t want Finn scared. He might go down there, and I figured that wasn’t good. We were safer up here.

That was the end of the noise, and soon Finn lay back down, and he went to sleep. I didn’t, though. I was scared. Something was wrong with Dad. He’d never been a dad like Mr. Kenton. He was busy with his job, and he didn’t smile much. Mom said his job had a lot of bad things, and that made him sad and angry sometimes, but still, I wished it could be different. I was proud of his job, but I wished it didn’t make him upset.

Until this yelling started, though, he’d been nice when he was home. He’d taken Finn and me fishing, and we’d gone to the store in his sheriff car sometimes, and he laughed with us. But then Mom stopped going outside, and Dad started yelling, and beer was part of his dinner, and things hadn’t been as good. Mom said it would be okay when the elections were done. That was in the fall, so I figured we could wait it out. Then he would be himself again, and our house would be normal again.

It was a great plan. It just wasn’t God’s plan for us. And I didn’t know thing one about God at that point, but I would soon. What I learned would change everything. And to be honest, for the first few years, it wouldn’t change things for the better. Not one bit.

I wasn’t sure how Mrs. Kenton had done it, but she’d talked my mom into letting us go with Meg and her family to the zoo, and the day was starting out great. We all piled into the van, with Mr. and Mrs. Kenton in the front and the rest of us in the back. Meg, Nev and I were in the way back. Meg was in pink again, with a big pink bow. Everyone else was in blue except for Savannah, who was in purple. I didn’t know why I noticed, but I did. Meg always stood out with her pink. I asked her if her mom made her wear pink, and she’d laughed at me and said no, it was her favorite color. I didn’t know how a person could have pink as a favorite color, but I guessed that was a girl thing.

We talked all the way to the zoo, and the van was loud. Quen and Finn talked and laughed and made stupid noises, possibly imitating the animals they wanted to see. Meg’s mom and dad talked, too, about whatever parents talked about. Savannah babbled and sang little baby songs. Nev was pretty quiet, like usual, although he laughed at Meg and me a lot.

I didn’t remember visiting a zoo before. Dad was busy and Mom didn’t like to go to places with crowds, so we seldom went anywhere. Meg, though, had been to lots of places. She’d lived in a bunch of houses, and she’d seen zoos and an aquarium and lots of parks.

Sometimes Daddy gets tired before we do, because of his leg, Meg said. Then he stops and waits, or Mom gets him a chair, and she pushes him. He hates that, though. He’ll put Savannah on his lap and pretend it’s for her. Mom said Daddy’s leg used to be better, but he had surgery when he was a kid, and it got worse.

I thought surgery as a kid sounded bad. I wouldn’t want to be in a big hospital all by myself. But maybe kids could have their parents in the hospital with them. I didn’t know.

The zoo was everything I thought it would be. The animals were close, and we could hear them and smell them and of course see them. There was even a barn with goats and sheep and rabbits where we could touch them. Goats and sheep were kind of wiry, but the bunnies were soft. A baby camel was there, and she was kind of soft, too. We had a picnic lunch, and Mr. and Mrs. Kenton kept counting us to make sure we were all here.

Mr. Kenton didn’t seem to get tired. He used his cane, and sometimes he sat down when we watched an animal for a long time, but he laughed and smiled all day. Savannah was in a stroller, so she didn’t get tired, but Mrs. Kenton let her out a few times hoping she would sleep on the way home.

Meg and I made up games for Quen, Finn, and Nev. We read the signs about the animals and asked them questions, and we raced them from one cage to the next. Until Nev fell down and skinned his knee. After that we had to find the first aid station for a bandage, and Mrs. Kenton suggested we just walk. That was fine, because it was hot and we were getting tired.

Savannah and Nev both slept on the way home. Nev was leaning against Meg’s side asleep. Quen and Finn were talking, but they were pretty quiet. I looked at Meg and her pink bow, which was hanging down because her hair was a mess, and I sighed.

I don’t want to go home, I said. Today was too fun.

You really never went to a zoo before?

I don’t think so. Not that I can remember.

Meg scowled. That’s terrible. Your parents should take you to the zoo.

Mom doesn’t like crowds.

Meg thought about that. I’ve never met her. She doesn’t like anyone, does she?

It’s not like that, I said. She’s not mean. She likes people. She just gets... She gets kind of scared, I think. She looks at the floor and gets kind of funny when we’re with people.

Is she sick? Meg asked. I would later realize Meg was incredibly insightful as well as bossy, but I didn’t have the words for that yet. And I didn’t understand my mom too well, either.

She’s not sick, I said defensively. I didn’t want to hear Meg say anything about my mom that wasn’t nice. Mom was good. Dad was the one who could be mean.

"Okay. Well, I’m glad we took you to the zoo. It was funner because you were there. More