`ICE'' Marvin liked to eat tomatoes - by the bagful. He also liked skateboarding, bowling, video games like ``Space Invaders,'' scary movies, junk food, motorcycles, and ... girls. But mostly, like his best friend, Charles ``Chow'' (short for Champion of the World) Lebow, Ice liked to eat tomatoes.
``Hey!'' he said excitedly to Chow one day, toward the end of summer. ``You'll never guess what I saw - the biggest tomato ever. It's the tomato of my dreams.'' To show Chow how big the tomato was, he held up his hands as if they were around a large grapefruit.
Chow, who'd been fooled by Ice's tricks once too often, was doubtful. He kept on playing catch in the street with his little sister, Puck, and tried not to sound too interested. ``Where'd you see it?''
``Not far,'' Ice said secretively. ``Next block over. I'll take you there tonight, after dark. Puck can come, too, if she wants. And don't worry, you guys can have half.''
The tomato the size of a grapefruit turned out to be real. There it was, all five or so pounds of it, stuck to the end of a bent-over tomato plant, shiny with moonlight, succulent as a hot-fudge sundae, or as Ice would've said, ``a frosty can of cream soda.'' Ice, a sixth grader, liked cream soda almost as much as tomatoes.
But there was a problem, maybe more than one. The tomato happened to be growing in someone's garden, behind a high wire fence, the kind with those sharp prongs at the top. Inside, a smaller fence also protected the garden ``from short people, meaning kids,'' Ice guessed.
``More likely woodchucks and other varmits,'' Chow said.
``How come you know so much?'' Ice asked his friend.
``Unlike you,'' Chow said, ``I've been known to read....''
But before he could finish, Puck interrupted. ``Can we go home now?'' she asked in a tiny voice. Her brother gave her a look, and Ice said, ``We just got here. Why would we go home?''
```Cause the tomato's not ours.''
Like most 6-year-olds, Puck had a strong sense of right and wrong. Chow gave a nervous laugh. He wanted to side with his friend, but knew that his sister was right.
``Is she serious?'' Ice was incredulous. ``Look how many tomatoes the guy has. What's one less? He'd never miss it.''
Puck had a face that wrinkled her nose.
``Hey!'' Chow said under his breath. He had an idea. ``We don't have to eat the tomato. Why not just ... touch it?''
Ice looked skeptical. ``Touch it?'' he said. ``What good's that?''
``Because ... it'd be a challenge'' was Chow's answer.
Now Ice made a face. ``What good's a challenge without a reward?'' he said out loud. ``No, I want to eat it. Imagine how good it tastes!'' He stared at the tomato on the other side of two fences and licked his lips. Ice ate tomatoes the way other people ate popcorn - handfuls at a time.
``You don't understand,'' Chow said to him in a serious voice. ``This isn't just any tomato. It's numero uno. The biggest in the world. You just can't eat it. It belongs in a food museum. To touch it and not eat it would show everyone that you, Ice Marvin, are a true tomato connoisseur.''
``Expert. Besides, we got a refrigerator full of tomatoes at my house. You can have all you want.''
This seemed to do the trick.
``All I want,'' Ice repeated. ``You sure?''
Ice's face brightened. ``You know,'' he said, ``it would be sort of ... `fly' to sneak in there just to touch the tomato and not eat it. Like you say, a challenge. We could tell the other kids we did it. Later we could tomato-out at your house.''
Chow was looking at Puck. ``What do you think about that?'' he asked her.
Her nose was wrinkled again and she shook her head. ``I bet Mr. Davie won't like it,'' was her answer.
Ice thought this was funny. So did Chow. They fell on the ground they were laughing so hard. Puck just stood there.
``He's not a farmer,'' Chow explained. ``He just grows vegetables in his garden.''
But Puck had other ideas. And evidence. ``He wears a farmer's hat,'' she said. ``A floppy one. And he's got two big....''
Ice interrupted. ``Come on. We're wasting time.''
``Two big what?'' Chow asked his sister, but it was too late. Ice was already halfway up the wire fence, with Puck, who had her own reasons for tagging along, at his heels. In about 10 seconds they were staring at Chow from inside the fence. Those sharp prongs at the top hadn't bothered them.
``Move it!'' Ice commanded.
Chow did as he was told, and, with a deep breath, scrambled up over the top and down again.
``Now for the fun part,'' Ice said.
Side by side by side the three kids crawled on their stomachs across the yard, toward the mini-fence and the garden, where the tomato of Ice's dreams hung smack in the middle. The house beyond was as dark as a cave.
It turned out that the mini-fence was electrified. Chow was all set to grab hold and hoist himself over, when Ice stopped him. ``Wait,'' he told Chow. ``Let's try this.'' He'd found a small metal trowel lying in the grass. When he tossed it against the fence there was the crackle of electricity - ZZZZZZIIPPPCKKK! Chow was horrified.
``Let's get out of here!'' he cried out. ``Whoever this Mr. Davie guy is means business. He doesn't want anyone messing with his vegetables.''
But Ice was undaunted. ``Come on,'' he whispered. ``No time to chicken out now.''
``Not me,'' Chow told him. ``And not Puck. You act crazy if you want to, but count us out. We'll wait here.''
Ice knew when his friend was being serious. Without another word, he got a running start and leaped over the fence. Then he dropped to his hands and knees and crawled through a row of corn stalks, toward the prize he'd come for. The moon dipped behind some clouds, making everything turn darker. The place smelled of garden - turned earth, cool to the touch, healthy green plants, things growing.
Ice liked gardens. A lot. He thought, when he got older that he might like to be a gardener. If he shut his eyes, right now, he could imagine heaven. Instead, he took a handful of soil and rubbed it all over his face. Man, did that feel good!
Ice made his way past the zucchini squash and bulging heads of lettuce, to a long row of tomato plants. The tomato of his dreams lay straight ahead.
Up close, Ice couldn't believe his eyes. He put out his hand and gently poked the tomato's smooth red skin, as cool as spring water. If anything, the tomato was even bigger than a grapefruit. Ice's mouth began to water. Not eating it was going to be hard. Curiosity took hold and he asked himself, ``I wonder how heavy it is?''
But he never got a chance to find out.
SNICK! Just like that, without warning, the tomato fell off its branch and with a soft thud landed in the dirt and split apart, ooze everywhere. Was it because Ice had poked it with his finger? Didn't matter. It was ruined and there was nothing he could do about it. May as well get a move on before something worse happened.
A small light went on inside the house. Suddenly the whole garden lit up, under the glare of about a dozen spotlights. Someone had thrown a switch.
``Run, Ice!'' Chow shouted, but he didn't have to. Ice was running, his legs pumping like pistons inside an engine. In fact, he was running so fast that when he jumped over the electrified fence he crashed headlong into Chow.
The back door of the house slammed open and out came not one but two of the angriest German shepherds Chow and Ice had ever seen. Whoosh! Across the yard they came like two bolts of furry lightning, snapping their teeth, enough to scare anyone, let alone a bunch of kids.
Run they did. Across the yard to the fence and up, the dogs, teeth the size of steak knives, snapping at their Nikes. ``Hurry, Puck!'' Chow called out. His fingers pulled at the wire mesh. Where was his sister, anyway? ``Puck? Puck?'' He took a look over his shoulder.
Surprise! She was just standing there, not looking scared at all. And the dogs' growls and barks had magically turned to whimpers. ``Look at Puck!'' Chow cried, but there was no reason for alarm. The dogs were licking his sister's face and she was laughing. Was this what she meant by the ``two big'' things? How had she known? He was about to find out.
``Get down from there!''
It was a man's voice, gruff and angry.
Chow and Ice climbed down - and found themselves face to face with a tall scarecrow wearing a floppy farmer's hat and brandishing a pitchfork.
``Puck,'' the scarecrow asked, ``who are these boys?''
``Chow and Ice.'' She spoke right up.
The scarecrow rubbed his chin. ``They belong to you?''
Puck's little head bobbed up and down. ``Chow does,'' she said proudly. ``He's my brother.''
``Your brother, huh?'' The scarecrow rubbed his chin again.
Chow didn't know what to do or say. Neither did Ice. Running was out of the question and they knew enough not to talk. Sweat dribbled down their noses.
``So,'' Mr. Davie the scarecrow finally said. ``What're you all doing here at night? I know Puck wouldn't steal vegetables, but how about you?'' He seemed to be addressing Chow, so it was Chow who spoke.
Swallowing hard, he said, ``Oh, no, sir. We just wanted to ... touch your tomato.'' The words sounded funny coming out of his mouth. Who'd want to touch a tomato?
Mr. Davie looked puzzled.
``Huh? Touch what tomato? Why?''
The answer came from Puck. ``It's the tomato of Ice's dreams,'' she said, her voice tinkling like a bell.
It was hard not to laugh.
A light bulb went on in Mr. Davie's head. ``Oh,'' he said. ``You mean my prize tomato. The huge one that the `Guinness Book of World Records' is coming to take a picture of. No, you better not touch that one. I wouldn't want anything to happen to it. No, siree!''
Chow heard Ice suck in his breath. Was something wrong? He hadn't eaten the tomato, had he? And what about Puck? She'd evidently been spending lots of time with Mr. Davie and his dogs. Luckily for all of them.
``I think we better be going,'' Ice suddenly said. The way he said it made Chow realize that there was something wrong.
``Right,'' Chow blurted out, backing up his friend. ``Puck, I think we better get a move on. Thanks a lot, Mr. Davie....''
But the scarecrow, beanpole tall, was waving the pitchfork in the air. A crooked grin creased his face. ``Now that you're here,'' he said, ``you might as well see what's going to make me and Puck famous. It's her tomato, too. She helped plant it.''
``I don't think ...'' Ice began, but a growl from one of the German shepherds stopped him.
``This way, fellas.''
What else could they do but follow? Through a gate in the electrified fence, past the corn and squash and lettuce, until, with a gasp, Mr. Davie came to a halt. Chow saw what they all saw: the giant tomato split in two. Nice going, Ice.
What was the Guinness Book's record number of years for a kid to be grounded by his parents? Chow was sure he was going to find out. That is, if he managed to escape the pitchfork and the vicious dogs.
Mr. Davie ran forward and dropped to his knees. ``Junior! Junior!'' he cried. ``What happened to you?''
Chow and Ice looked at each other and shrugged. Puck made a face as if to say, ``Just wait'll we get home and I tell Mom and Dad.'' The dogs woofed and bumped together. Mr. Davie, the tomato in his hands, turned to face them. But he wasn't mad. Just sad. ``Had to happen,'' he said. ``Just got too heavy.''
Ice stepped bravely forward. When it came to tomatoes, there was only one way for a connoisseur to act: with honesty.
``It was my fault,'' he admitted. ``I poked it and it fell. I wasn't going to eat it. It's the tomato of my dreams, and now it's ruined. Sorry about the Guinness Book of World Records.'' He said it as if he meant it, and he did.
But both boys were in for a surprise. Puck laughed and Mr. Davie said, ``This tomato? The one that split? Junior? No, this isn't the one. Our prize, the one Puck and I worked so hard on, is over ... there.''
He pointed with the pitchfork. Chow's mouth dropped open. Ice practically fell down. For there in front of them was what truly had to have been the biggest tomato in the world, bowling ball-size, round, red, and shiny with dew. Succulent as a frosty can of cream soda. ``Now that's what I call a tomato!''
Ice's eyes were wide with pride and hunger. And the tomato wasn't even his. Chow knew that he better get his friend out of there and home before real trouble happened. Mr. Davie knew it, too.
``Come on, you three,'' he said, heading toward the house. ``I've got a couple of bagfuls of tomatoes you can take home to your parents. Only no more sneaking around at night. OK? And Puck. Next summer, why don't you get these boys to come with you when we plant the garden? We can use all the help we can get. Right?''
``Right,'' Puck said. But she made a face that wrinkled her nose, and Chow knew that no matter how well everything had turned out, she couldn't wait to go home and ``spill the beans.''
Then, no doubt, there'd be two new Guinness world records - both from the same neighborhood.
Kidspace is a place on The Home Forum page where kids can find stories that tickle the imagination, entertain with a tall tale, explain how things work, or describe a real-life event. These articles appear twice a month, always on Tuesdays.