An enormous ant marched over the top of the hill, surrounded by smaller ants the size of the ants holding down the picnic blanket. The procession walked up to the edge of the blanket and paused.
Isaac recognized the guard ants by the sticks they carried. The others all seemed to be workers of some kind. Or maybe they were the royal court. Did ants have a royal court? Some of the ants were carrying leaves and seeds.
The enormous ant stepped forward and tapped her foot impatiently. “Well?” she said. “Are you going to greet your queen?”
The ants on the blanket bowed. “We can’t,” one of the ants said with a quavering voice. “We can’t move.”
“And why not?” the queen asked.
“If we move, the blanket will fly away.”
At that moment, the wind blew through, and the free corner of the blanket slapped forwards and hit the queen right in the middle of her belly. The queen swayed backwards. The entire procession gasped. Several ants darted forward to steady the queen. The ants on the blanket dived at the corner to secure it, leaving their corners free to bat at the queen as the wind continued to blow.
Guard ants stepped forward and used the sticks they were carrying to knock away the flapping blanket corners. Finally the wind died down again. Isaac stepped off his corner of the blanket and stepped back, hoping no one would notice him. The two ants left in the middle of the blanket pushed away the corners of the blanket and stood up.
They looked around for a second, and then fell flat on their faces. Both of them began to talk at once.
“I’m so sorry.”
“I didn’t mean it.”
“There just weren’t enough of us.”
“We didn’t expect the wind to be so strong.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“Silence,” the queen said sharply. She turned to the guards. “Take them away. And take the blanket too. It’s obviously not the right weather for a picnic.”
The guards dragged away the sobbing ants and the blanket. A worker ant approached the queen and bowed. “My queen, the food we’ve prepared…”
“Take it all back inside. We can eat later.”
The ant bowed again. “Of course. It will be done. Miss Muffet will be coming soon with the honeydew barrels.”
The queen sighed. “She can leave them here. They won’t blow away in the wind anyway.” She looked around at the meadow. “What is there to do out here besides picnic?”
Some of the ants left, carrying away the leaves and seeds. “We could play hide and seek?” A worker ant suggested.
“This isn’t the forest. There’s nowhere to hide,” another said. “We should play tag.”
“That didn’t go so well last time,” someone said. There was a long silence.
The queen turned and looked at Isaac. She was so much bigger than the other ants. He hoped she was a vegetarian ant. There was no way he could outrun her, he had no idea where he was, and the door was gone.
His mother once told him that the trick to safely meeting a new dog was to appear confident, because if you seemed afraid, they’d decide it was okay to chase you. It might be the same with enormous ants. He straightened his shoulders and held up his head. Then he bowed, just in case.
“Who are you?” the queen asked. “What are you doing here?”
“My name is Isaac, and I’m lost. The door said Come In, so I did, but now the door is gone.”
“Hmmmm.” The queen leaned a little closer and pointed at him. “Do you know any games we could play out here?”
Isaac’s mind went blank. In desperation, he patted his pockets. He felt the baseball. “I have an idea,” he said. “Have you ever played baseball?”
“No,” the queen said.
“Then I’d be happy to teach you all how to play.” He took the baseball out of his pocket. “This is a baseball. It’s not edible so don’t eat it. Mostly you throw it and catch it and use sticks to hit it. Let me explain the rules,” he said.
After twenty minutes, Isaac decided that maybe he wasn’t a very good teacher. Or maybe the ants weren’t very good at playing baseball. He looked around the field at the chaos and sighed.
At first, he’d been disappointed not to be picked for a team. However, seeing the number of ants dragged away by guards or injured, he was happy to fade into the background a bit. Besides, it wasn’t like they were playing real baseball. They weren’t following the rules at all.
The three ants chosen as bases were running back and forth listening to conflicting directions from the ants around them. Initially, the queen ordered anyone at bat for the opposing team to not hit the ball.
One poor ant, when the pitcher managed to throw the ball directly at her bat and get a hit, ran in the opposite direction of the bases. Then, the queen remembered that they could tag her out. She sent her teammates to capture the runner.
The runner disappeared under a pile of determined ants. The queen applauded, and declared that after that, everyone must get a hit on their turn at bat. Several players had to be replaced when they struck out and were dragged away by the guards.
Others were replaced when they staggered around, dizzy, after being at the bottom of an antpile. It seemed like there was a never-ending supply of new players. The crowd around the edges of the game seemed to keep growing. Where were all the ants coming from? Did they live nearby? How many ants lived in an ant colony?
The queen always stole all the bases when it was her turn at bat. Isaac was certain that none of the other ants dared to tag her out. She was much larger than the other ants, so it was only a few steps between the bases for her anyway, even if they hadn’t been scooting closer to make it easier for her. She could hit the ball much further away, too.
For some reason, it was always Isaac’s job to fetch the ball when the queen had knocked it into the grassy hills again. She would hit the ball and walk between the bases, and everyone would stand and cheer until Isaac returned with the ball, and they could start the game again.
The queen seemed to be up at bat more often than her teammates. Isaac decided not to say anything about that. He sighed again as the ball sailed over the hills and far away. He left the cheering crowd behind and trudged over the hill.
It wasn’t always easy to find the little baseball in the tall grass. Sometimes, he could tell that there was a patch of flattened grass where it landed. Other times it landed where the grass was thinner and he could see it. This time, he had no idea where it went. So he walked in little spirals around the general path he thought the ball took.
This time, it seemed impossible to find. Was the cheering growing fainter? He hoped that the queen wouldn’t decide he was taking too long and order the guards to drag him away.
He looked around again. Finding a lost baseball in a field of tall grass seemed hopeless. Isaac considered walking away and continuing his search for the way home. But it wasn’t his baseball. It was Jimmy’s. He’d like to bring it back with him. Looking for it got him into this mess after all.
Besides, the queen might know the way home. He couldn’t leave without asking her. He had no idea which way to go. He could end up wandering around here forever. Wherever here was.
He pushed some more grass out of the way. A giant eye looked back at him. Isaac yelped and jumped back. A familiar voice chuckled. It was the butterfly.
“Did I scare you?” she asked.
“No,” Isaac said. “I was just surprised. That’s all.”
“What are you doing?”
“Looking for my baseball. It’s little and white and round…”
The butterfly held up the baseball. “And nearly hit me on the head.”
“Thank you for finding it,” Isaac said. “I don’t know what the queen would have done if I couldn’t find it.”
“Does the queen scare you?” the butterfly asked.
“Maybe,” Isaac said. A large shadow fell around him and the air seemed colder. Somehow he knew that the queen was standing behind him, listening.
Knowing that the queen was behind him listening, Isaac felt his mind start racing. Would she feel insulted that he thought she was scary? He didn’t want to be dragged away by the guards. This time it might not be as easy to escape. What could he say to fix this?
“I’ve never met someone as important as she is,” he said quickly. “I’m not really sure how I should act.”
“I’m sure you’ll be fine,” the butterfly said.
“Who is this?” the queen asked sharply. “And why is she staring at me?”
“I’m a butterfly,” the butterfly said.
The guards rushed past Isaac and surrounded the butterfly. “She has extra eyes,” one of the guards said, examining the eyespots on the wings. “They’re really big.”
“Perhaps she’s here to spy on us,” another guard said.
“I can’t see with them,” the butterfly said. “They’re just for show.”
“Showing what?” the first guard asked.
“For decoration,” the butterfly said.
“I thought you said they were for show,” the second guard said. “But now you say they’re for decoration.”
“Mighty suspicious.” The first guard turned and looked at Isaac. “And you, you were here with her, weren’t you? Perhaps you’re a spy too.”
“He did show up out of nowhere,” the second guard said. “Maybe he’s the one that brought the wind that spoiled the picnic.”
“I shared my baseball with you,” Isaac said.
“He did do that,” the first guard said. They turned and looked at the butterfly again. “So, what do you have to say for yourself?”
The butterfly flapped her wings and looked thoughtful. “One morning, the warm sun came up and pop! –I hatched out of my egg onto a large green leaf. I was a tiny, and very hungry caterpillar. I started to look for some food.”
“I thought you said you were a butterfly,” the second guard said.
“I am. I just used to be a caterpillar.”
“Mighty suspicious. And you didn’t answer my question.”
The butterfly shrugged. “Then maybe you asked the wrong question.”
The queen started tapping her foot. “This is taking too long,” she said.
Isaac coughed a little, to catch everyone’s attention. “I think she knows Miss Muffet. Maybe Miss Muffet can tell us what you need to know.”
“Miss Muffet will be bringing the honeydew barrels soon. Very well.” She turned and began walking away. “Guards, escort the butterfly to the game and keep an eye on her,” she called over her shoulder. “And bring the baseball.”
The first guard looked at the butterfly. “Am I keeping an eye on her if her eyes outnumber my eyes? Or is she keeping an eye on me? Wouldn’t that just be her spying again?”
The second guard thought for a moment and then counted on her fingers. “If we both keep an eye on her, then I think we’re even. If we find someone else, then we’re ahead.”
“That is where the eyes go,” the first guard said. “Come along butterfly, formerly known as caterpillar. We need to find someone to help us keep an eye on you.”
The butterfly launched into the air and started to fly in the direction of the baseball game. The guards scrambled to keep up. “Hey, that’s not fair. We’re supposed to be watching you. You didn’t say you could fly,” one of the guards yelled.
“Bring the baseball,” the other growled at Isaac as they ran past.
Isaac picked up the baseball and followed them back over the hill. “Throw it over here,” several ants called. He tossed it towards the pitcher, who had to take a step forward to catch it. Then the queen stepped up to bat and the game began again.
Luckily, this time the ball landed close enough to the crowd that someone else ran for it and tossed it to the pitcher. Isaac looked for the butterfly. She was fluttering over the crowd watching the game. A group of guards were staring at her without blinking.
Isaac turned to an ant standing nearby. “What inning is this?” he asked.
“Who knows,” the ant said. “I don’t think anyone is keeping track.”
If no one kept track, how would they know when the game was over? Isaac started to worry that the game would never end. If the game never ended, would he ever get home?
Isaac was once again hunting for the baseball, when he saw Miss Muffet in the distance. She and two other ants were each carrying a large barrel. Isaac looked down again and managed to spot the baseball.
He shoved it in his pocket and jogged over. “Hello again,” he said. “Is that the honeydew? Do you need any help carrying it?”
“It would be nice to send one of the guards ahead to warn the queen, but you don’t look strong enough to carry a barrel,” Miss Muffet said.
The ants were holding the barrels loosely, as though they weighed almost nothing. Isaac wondered if the ants were making fun of him. “Let me try to carry one,” he said.
Miss Muffet nodded and one of the ants set down a barrel. Isaac bent over and tried to pick it up, but he couldn’t even lift it. He sighed and shook his head, and the ant picked it up again.
“I guess I’ll be the one to go warn the queen,” Isaac said.
“That would be nice,” Miss Muffet said.
Isaac took the baseball out of his pocket and jogged back to the baseball game. Before he threw the ball to the pitcher, he went to talk to the queen, who was standing by first base.
“Miss Muffet is coming,” he said.
“That’s good. Where’s the ball?”
Isaac handed it over and the queen tossed it to the pitcher. The game started again. The batter swung wildly, but missed the ball. The crowd murmured. After two more frantic attempts, the poor ant was out. “That was terrible, take her away,” the queen said.
Guards dragged the ant away, and another ant left the crowd of spectators and picked up the stick. Isaac looked back. Miss Muffet and her guards were just coming over the hill. They headed towards the edge of the crowd.
Isaac turned back to the game, just as the batter missed the first ball. “Hit the ball,” the queen shouted. The ant took some practice swings and nodded.
The pitcher threw a curve ball. The ant missed again. “Last chance,” the queen yelled. The ant nodded and held the stick a little closer and leaned forward.
The pitcher pulled her arm back and started to throw the ball. Someone screamed. The pitcher let go as she turned to look. The ball flew into the crowd. The batter chased it, swinging her bat. The crowd started yelling and running around wildly, bumping into each other.
Miss Muffet was shouting loudly enough to be heard above the noise. The queen reached her side in a few strides. The panicking crowd still cleared a path for her. Isaac followed the queen before the path through the crowd disappeared. “What is going on? You interrupted the game with your screaming,” the queen said.
“When I set down my barrel, there was a spider on it,” Miss Muffet said. “I wasn’t expecting it.”
“Where is the spider now? Guards, take it away!”
“I don’t know,” Miss Muffet said. “It’s gone.”
The queen turned and watched the panicking crowd. Someone bumped into her. “Take her away,” the queen yelled. Then she waded into the crowd, yelling for this ant or that one to be taken away.
“We need to find that spider,” Miss Muffet told the guards. They disappeared into the crowd. Isaac stayed next to the barrels. It looked safer. He didn’t want to be trampled by stampeding ants.
The chaos continued until the ants had all either been dragged away or done the dragging. Only Isaac and the queen were left. She came over and picked up the barrels as though they weighed nothing and started to follow the last set of guards over the hill.
“Wait,” Isaac said. The queen turned, and Isaac tried to swallow away his nervousness. “Your Majesty, please wait,” he said. “I have a question.”
“You may ask your question.”
“Do you know a way out of the cave?” Isaac asked.
Isaac looked around at the grass and sky. “It may not seem like it, but all of this is underground in a deep cave. I need to find my way back out.”
“I haven’t gone past the boundaries of our territory since I was very young,” the queen said. “You may wish to speak to the mole crickets. They know much about the underground.” She turned to leave. “They are on my way. If you follow me, I will introduce you.”
“Thank you very much,” Isaac said. He raced to follow her. Just as they started climbing the hill, he nearly tripped over Jimmy’s baseball. He picked it up and shoved it in his pocket and jogged up the hill, following the queen.
The queen pointed to a hole in the ground. “They’re in there.”
“Um, thank you,” Isaac said.
“Come back and teach us a new game,” she said.
“I’ll do my best.” Isaac bowed, and the queen walked away, over another hill and out of sight.