The summer sun rode low in the sky, painting the horizon red, stretching his shadow far across the porch as the truck pulled up. Dad slid from behind the wheel and stretched to his full height. He was a big man, but, then, farming was a big job.
“What have you got there, Jess?”
“See?” said Jesse. “Caught ‘em in the field.”
His father bent for a better look, his eyes big and weird to Jesse through the glass of the two-gallon jar.
“Wow! Looks like the king of the crickets in there.”
There were two crickets, actually: the smaller one was big, but the bigger one was huge, nearly the size of Dad’s hand.
Dad looked thoughtful.
“Good thing these didn’t swarm.”
“Something your grandfather told me about. Back when he was a boy, the locusts swarmed. You know what a swarm is? A bunch of flying locusts, or crickets, so many they blotted out the sky. They’d land and eat everything. I mean everything. All the crops, all the grass — even fences were gnawed on. When they ran out of food they’d fly somewhere else and it would start all over again.”
“Really?” Jesse looked into the jar with apprehension.
“Don’t worry. For some reason the swarms stopped. Just sort of disappeared. No one’s sure why, really.”
“Mom said maybe I could show this big one at the fair next month. Maybe win a ribbon!”
“I’ll bet you could, Champ.”
Dad stared into the jar, thoughtful again.
“I’ll just bet we could.”
~ ~ * * ~ ~
Jesse opened his eyes. Nothing but darkness and the glow of his nightlight.
His eyes closed.
A quiet voice; not a whisper, exactly, but somehow small. He opened his eyes, looking toward the door.
“No, young Jesse. Here.”
Motion caught his eye. The jar. He crept over for a closer look. The giant cricket faced away, chitinous back shiny in the dim illumination. The other cricket faced Jesse, wings flexing.
“Did you talk?”
Jesse’s jaw dropped.
“You must free us.”
“You must free us. You do not understand the danger.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Your father was close in his estimation. You have not captured the King of the Crickets, but you have netted a Prince.”
The huge insect continued to stare disinterestedly toward the wall.
“Holding him is very dangerous. You must free us.”
“But what about the fair?” said Jesse. “The ribbon…”
“You must free us.”
“I’ll talk to my dad,” said Jesse. He would talk to his dad, but right now he could barely keep his eyes open, talking cricket or no. He lay back down. His eyes closed.
“Please. You must free us…”
~ ~ * * ~ ~
“That’s one heck of a dream, Champ.”
Dad forked up more eggs.
“It wasn’t a dream, Dad. He was talking!”
“Oh, I’ll bet he was. In the middle of the night. Did the King say anything?”
“No. And he’s not the king, Dad, he’s a prince.”
“Definitely get a blue ribbon, then.”
“But Dad, what about letting them go?”
“Ah, but Jesse, think of that ribbon!”
That was his last word on the subject. He put his plate in the sink and headed out to his truck. Jesse eyed the big jar. The giant cricket, as always, faced the wall. The smaller one stared back.
“Mom, do you think we could—”
“I think your father is taken with the fair idea,” she said. “You might be able to change his mind, but I’m staying out of this one.”
Jesse carried the jar back to his room, looking into the glass prison.
“It wasn’t a dream, was it? You did talk.”
The turned back.
The small, black stare.
He tried to unscrew the lid, but his father had been the one to slip the lettuce leaf into the enclosure, and it was far too tight for Jesse to loosen. He returned the jar to his bureau and avoided his room for the rest of the day. Those small, unblinking eyes were unnerving.
~ ~ * * ~ ~
When the voice came in the night, Jesse feigned sleep, hoping real sleep would come, wishing the little pleading voice would just go away.
It did not.
“His highness is most unhappy. You must release us. You must. You don’t understand, there is a treaty… Please. His Highness is offering you a chance — but it is the last chance. Please…”
~ ~ * * ~ ~
“I said no.”
“But Dad —”
The fair’s a month away. If you don’t want to take care of ‘em, I will — but then the ribbon’ll be mine. Not ours. You get me?”
Jesse watched his father head out to the truck, stopping in the yard where Mom was hanging laundry out to dry, and kissed her goodbye. He turned toward the jar, and the small, black eyes.
He turned away.
“You will be.”
Jess spun back to the table.
The prince stood on his hind legs, finally facing the room, wings spread to reveal their red and purple undersides, and he keened. Not chirped. Keened, the cry high and rising higher. And louder — so loud Jesse clapped his hands to his ears, but it made no difference: the long, high note coming from the jar was in his head as much as his ears.
From the corner of his eye he saw a shadow, and he looked to the window. Storm clouds seemed to cover the sun, bringing a premature dusk. Through the note in his head he heard the plink-plink of rain beginning to hit the house… but what struck the windows wasn’t water, or even hail. It was bigger. Larger. Striking the glass with a plink and sticking for just a moment, before falling away to land in the yard.
The plink-plink sped up as more of the cloud fell, and Jesse remembered his father’s words: They’d land and eat everything. I mean everything.
Out in the yard, Jesse’s mother began to scream...