On a warm, breezy day in the summer of 1988, I was living in Greenville, South Carolina. My father, mother and I had moved to our extended family’s hometown, and we had been settled in for a couple of months. I was only six, but I was used to moving and quickly familiarizing myself with a new locale. The summers I spent in the South were particularly memorable for their long days – sun never seemed to set. This was wonderful for me, for at the time my parents had a “three star rule”: If I could count three stars in the sky, it was time to come home.
It was also memorable for the fun I had playing with the neighborhood kids who lived near our tiny duplex. We would run from yard to yard chasing each other, all the while concocting Calvinball-esque rules that explained precicely why we were the one winning at that moment, and the “Nuh-uh, I am!” of other kids were dismissed with a laugh.
During my adventures, I never strayed all that far from home, because I knew if I ever needed a break, I could always dash into the house, grab my favorite red cup, and fill it with cold, refreshing, apple juice. The cup was a tiny plastic thing; I doubt it was much bigger than the palm of my is hand now; there was nothing special about it, except that it was mine. And for a six year old, having something of their very own was a treasure not lightly regarded. I would spend my days running myself ragged, refueling with my beloved cup of apple juice, and then right back out until the stars shone down on me.
On one particular summer evening, my uncle had come out to visit, living just on the other side of town, and after quickly greeting him with a hug, I bounded out into the yard to gather my friends for a dragon hunting expedition, for the day needed our particular brand of saving. We stalked through the forest of clothes that hung on lines in the back of the houses on our street, armed with only our wits and stick-swords that had been carefully cultivated for maximum resilience. One doesn’t want a branch snapping in the jaws of a dragon, after all.
It wasn’t long at all before we found the Invisible Dragon, hoarding over it’s Invisible Treasure. We went to battle, and though my fellow adventurers and I had a few close scrapes with the beast’s teeth and talons, we slew it readily, and congratulated each other for our bravery and pluck. But dragon slaying is a thirsty business, and I found my throat parched from the throes of battle. That’s when I remembered – my uncle had showed up right after I filled my cup with fresh apple juice! That entire, frosty cup was still sitting on the coffee table, just waiting for me to come and quench myself! I took off like a flash, darting through undergarments and feeling the cool grass pressed against the soles of my bare feet. I turned a corner, and saw my front door wide open, the coffee table lay just beyond the threshold, my little red cup sitting right where I had left it. With renewed vigor, I pumped my little legs as fast as they would go, practically galloping into my house. With a triumphant grasp, I held my goblet aloft, toasted my victory, and quaffed the amber liquid in one glorious gulp.
Then I froze.
I turned the drink around my mouth with my tongue. Something was … wrong. It tasted bitter somehow? My six year-old mind lacked the words to describe the taste; all I knew was I didn’t like it. And with each passing moment, the offensive drink soured my mood even more, so I did the only thing I could do, and sprayed it out of my mouth in what had to be one of the Top 10 spittakes of the 1980’s. Then, once it was all ejected, I bellowed with all the shock and confusion my voice could muster: “THAT’S NOT APPLE JUICE!”
My parents and uncle, who I had barely acknowledged until now, fell into hysterics. Their bellowing laughter echoed through the room, reverberated through my body, and spilled past me out into the yard. I stood there, completely perplexed at how they could laugh at such a serious situation. Someone had taken my little red cup, and poisoned it!
When she could finally breathe again, my mother came over and wrapped me up into her arms, seeing the turmoil on my face as I struggled to comprehend what had happened. “Honey,” she said warmly, “Your uncle Bobby borrowed your cup and…” another round of cackles erupted from my father and uncle, “… and he put a grown up drink in it.”
“B-But … he didn’t ask me!” I sniffled and tried to hold back the tears I could feel welling up in my eyes. I was old enough to know I shouldn’t cry at everything, but sometimes I would get overwhelmed, and my body wouldn’t know how else to react.
They laughed one more time, my mom gave me a tight hug. I slowly pulled away, and then slumped outside, planting myself on our stoop. I wasn’t sure if I was mad, upset, embarrassed, or confused. I took a deep breath, and tried to put it behind me. Today had still been a good day. It had been warm, the sun had stayed out extra late for me, and I had slayed an invisible dragon. So I just sat, took a deep breath. Then I looked up at the sky, and counted the stars as they came out.