|Image by Fir002 via Wikimedia Commons|
Our house was hidden in the shadow of three hills, twenty miles away from the nearest gas station. As a kid, I never questioned having an hour’s bus ride each morning and afternoon. I took it as a fact of life that everyone spent an entire Saturday driving to a grocery store and filling up three carts with two weeks’ worth of food. Once or twice a year, I saved enough of my allowance to get a comic book or magazine for the way home, but mostly I looked out the window at the passing pine trees, scrub, swamps, and gravel driveways that led to homes unseen. I figured that was just the way life was for everyone, including the thin green man who lived at the edge of the fog.
Science was my favorite subject in school. I loved building terrariums and watching cricket larvae grow into full-sized bugs. I’d get up really close to their faces and freak myself out imagining them crawling into my nose and eating my brains. When I told this to another second-grader, he laughed, but never picked one up again as far as I could tell. In another unit, we learned all about the planets and spent two days on the moon. This was during the space race, so I wasn’t alone in dreaming about climbing into a silver space suit and blasting off from Cape Canaveral. I would be the first kid to discover moon crickets. The teacher said there weren’t any crickets on the moon, but I would have bet my whole allowance that there were.
I’d walk the hills around my house, flipping over rocks to see what the ants were up to. When the shadows got long, just before I would have to go home, I’d feel the thin green man watching me. I couldn’t see him directly. Just a hint of movement behind a tree if I turned around suddenly, or a flicker at the corners of my vision. At night, I watched from my window as it slipped between the fog and the shadows. I never got a clear look, but it was like someone took a leprechaun and stretched it as tall as my mother. Its arms were like chewing gum and its hair and beard may have been weeds. Then I found that if I sat on a particular rock on the southern hill and closed my eyes, it would come and stand behind me. I would talk about what had gone on in school that day, and it would grunt, hiss, or make some other sound in response.
“We feed the crickets lettuce,” I said. “I think they like it.”
“They don’t like it any more than you do,” it said. Its voice crackled as it talked, like tiny twigs cracking, or blowing up an old balloon from the bottom of the drawer. I turned, surprised. I caught a flash of green ducking behind a tree. When I got up and looked, it was gone. It tsked at me from somewhere I couldn’t make out.
“Sorry,” I said.
The next day, I sat on the same rock and forced myself to stare ahead. Its shadow came and stood next to mine.
“Why don’t crickets like lettuce?’ I said.
“Because it tastes tame. Wild crickets need wild food.”
“It didn’t say that in our science books.”
“That’s because the people who write science books can’t say things like that, even if they know better. “
“How do you know that?”
“Because I used to write science books too, a long time ago,” it said.
“But not now,” I said.
It shifted from foot to foot behind me for a few moments. “No. Not now.”
“What do you do now?”
“I’m studying your hills. This place is one of the last unexplored places in the world.”
“No it’s not. There’s the North Pole, South Pole, and that big desert in Africa.”
“Just because your people haven’t been there before, doesn’t mean those places are unexplored.”
“So you’re an explorer?” I said.
“I’m learning why the rocks in these hills are yellow and not red.”
“Oh.” That sounded about as interesting as what my dad did every day. “So will my cricket starve?”
“No. It will eat the lettuce. It has no other choice.”
“I have to eat my beets when we have them for dinner. I don’t like them. Do you have to eat your beets?”
The thin green man blew out a puff of air, which I thought was its way of laughing. “No, I don’t have to eat beets.”
“I don’t get ice cream either,” it said.
It left while I considered if never having to eat beets again was worth giving up ice cream forever. I still haven’t figured that one out.
“They’re going to send an astronaut to the moon. He’s going to get into a big rocket and blast off from Florida. He’ll smash into the moon, get out and claim it for America, and then build a log cabin and start a city. By the time I grow up, I’m going to live there too.”
“Really?” it said, “And what will you do on the moon?”
“I’m going to own a candy factory or an ice cream factory. I’m not sure which. Maybe I’ll have one of each and fly my jetpack between them when I need to tell the robots what to do.”
“That sounds like a fine plan.”
“You can come too.”
“What an interesting idea, thank you,” it said.
I began to wonder if the green man had somehow talked to my parents because we didn’t have ice cream for a long time. I couldn’t have and comics or magazines either. I just about cried by eyes out when Mom wouldn’t let me have a bag of Fritos for the school picnic, and I had to go with just a bologna sandwich and a handful of peanuts. She made me a cookie, but it was oatmeal. When I saw that David Haskins had ham and cheese on a bun, with barbeque chips and two chocolate chip cookies in his lunch bag, I began to think maybe the other kids I knew lived exciting, wonderful lives while I was stuck in the middle of nowhere. Maybe they never had to go to the grocery store at all.
The day after the picnic, school let out, and I was stuck helping Mom with chores, which I thought she just made up on the spot. There couldn’t possibly be that many things to clean or weeds to pull. Who cared about weeds anyway? Why did the grass and plants on the hills turn into weeds as soon as they crossed a line in Mom’s head? Mom never made sense when I asked her, so I stopped asking her. In the afternoons, I fled to the hills and beat on trees with sticks, or pretended I was bowling by rolling rocks down the slopes into anthills. It was going to be the worst summer ever, I could tell.
I told the little green man this, but it didn’t seem to care. It kept telling me about the rocks under the hills and asking me questions about the space program I didn’t know the answers to. When are they going? Where is their rocket? How long are they staying? How many rockets will there be? I finally began leaving Mom’s Time magazines on the rock for him to read, but I warned him there weren’t any jetpacks in them.
Then in the beginning of July, my dad announced that we were going to Florida to see Apollo 11 blast off. I could take my binoculars, though not my space helmet made from a Jiffy Pop bag. I think I spent the entire night looking out my bedroom window until the moon passed over the roof.
When I told the thin green man, it went still for a few moments. Then it wheezed.
“Can you take me with you?”
“I suppose so, but wouldn’t everyone be able to see you?”
“I might be able to fit in a place with enough shadow. A suitcase, a box, or even,” His taffy-thin shadow pointed at my shadow’s hip. “…in your pocket.”
“Yes, and I will need your help with one other thing.”