April 27th, 2012
by Kristine Ong Muslim
It wasn’t our fault. You should understand that by now. But I don’t expect you to understand the reason we did what we thought we had to do that summer of 1999, because people don’t understand order as much as we do.
At first, there were only three of us: Mel Arlington, Judith Legold, and me. By the end of the semester before that summer vacation, Billy Gambale, a fourth-grader who once helped Mel push my bicycle out of the ditch, joined our little group. I could never forget that day. It was humid, and the whole world was the mighty Godzilla out to get us. The burly Bartman and his ferocious pack were chasing me and Mel riding double with me on my bike. I lost control of the handlebars when we reached the embankment so we landed in the ditch near Mr. Ashley’s farm. The Bartman and his gang were laughing their heads off as they walked away from us. Mel and I cursed silently as we eased our way out of the filthy mud bath.
We both understood that we had no choice but to endure the treatment, because that was how the world worked. There was so much room for pain because the course of natural hierarchy–the taut demarcation line that separated predator from prey–had to be sustained that way. We knew that. We respected that.
“Want some help?” the freckled Billy Gambale called out from the embankment.
According to Judith, Billy spent almost half of his life playing inside the video arcade at Kingshoppe because he didn’t have any friends. He flushed when we looked up at him, probably thinking that it would be a lot easier for him if we ignored him.
“Come on down if you want to,” Mel said, laughing and splashing mud on me. “You’re Billy, right?”
He brightened instantly. I could swear I’d never seen happiness as profuse as that which shone from Billy Gambale’s eyes.
That afternoon at Judith’s house, Billy joined us to watch Flame of Recca, a Japanese animated series. We ate chocolate cookies and drank all of the milk in the fridge.
There were now four of us in the Legolds’ spacious living room and the thought of us being friends for a lifetime suddenly dawned upon me. I felt proud.
It was on the twenty-fifth of June when we first ventured into the vacant lot beside the Lares House to play baseball. It was Billy’s turn to pitch.
Judith swung for the fences.
I followed the ball’s course across the sky although the sun hurt my eyes. Strange, but I felt like a real man whenever I did that. It landed somewhere in the middle of the thick vegetation fifteen feet away from us.
Mel turned around and went for the ball. He told us earlier that he only managed to snatch the ball from his older brother’s bedroom because his brother had his head clamped with headphones. “The volume was turned up so high you’d hear the sound from the next room,” Mel informed us. “I think he’ll need a hearing aid the size of a cookie jar when he gets older.”
We all laughed at that. His brother was obese and ate sloppily. The cookie jar would have been a nice touch.
Mel was approaching the bushes when Judith screamed. I never heard her scream before; she was as hardassed as any man I’d ever seen in my life.
Mel froze. Following the direction of Billy’s frightened gaze, I saw it: a white face with what looked like holes lurking sparsely on its surface. It looked like a child, but its face resembled something out of a white board cut-out, with eyes made up of buttons, a paper clip nose, and a piece of string shaped to form the lips. Most of all, there were those terrible, hateful spots on his skin which resembled miniature lunar craters.
Mel stepped backward as the creature took one step forward. Its grotesque limbs were holding the ball, stretching them awkwardly on Mel’s direction to indicate that it wanted to return the ball.
My three friends huddled closer to me, their eyes fixed on the creature as it set the ball on the third base and scuttled back towards the bushes. Judith was the one who picked it up for Mel.
“I think he’s just a freak,” Mel said, looking down at his dirty sneakers as we walked away from the Lares House.
“He must’ve gotten some radiation when he was a kid,” Billy added.
I was annoyed by the way that they blatantly referred to the creature as a he. It wasn’t human to me. And I hated it, had to hate it more for what it represented. It was completely dislodged from my concept of primal order. The creature was a pure abomination, like a punk clad in a motorcycle jacket and engineer boots mouthing nothing but the f-word. And when you were a kid, it was not easy to allow it to fit into your general scheme of things or accept even the remotest possibility of its existence. It was simply too much for me.
“What’s radiation?” Judith asked.
“It causes things to mutate,” Billy said. “Like if I give it to you, you’ll change into a rat or something.”
“Shit,” Mel said, horrified. “How’d you get it?”
“I don’t know,” Billy answered. “It’s everywhere. The government puts it on our food so we don’t get past fifty. And there’s this one time–“
“I think it’s an alien invader,” I told them. I was not smiling. I knew they realized I meant business. “I think it wants to take over the world. We have to stop it.”
“Us?” Mel gasped. His face was ashen with fear.
“Don’t you think we have to call 911?” Judith said.
“I guess you’re right, Jude,” Billy agreed.
“They won’t believe us. Not grown-ups. They won’t believe a thing like that. They’d laugh their heads off and then stick us in the loony bin like Carl’s dad.”
“Not if we take a picture of him,” Judith suggested.
I noticed that Mel was looking around nervously.
“How?” I said. “Say ‘hey, Mr. Moonman, we’d like you to pose and say cheese because we need to take a nice picture of you and send it to X-Files.’”
“Why don’t we just forget about him, okay?” Mel said. He was sweating. He was such a crybaby.
We were silent after that.
“Come back here tomorrow,” I said when we reached my house. All I wanted was to become a leader, a real man. I would take the responsibility if I had to. “We’d talk about what we’re supposed to do.”
I turned around and walked across the yard. I did not wait for them to respond because I knew they would stick with me no matter what happened.
In the end, every one agreed to join me in hunting the thing and killing it. Mel, anxious about the idea, finally gave in when he saw Judith’s enthusiastic response.
We tracked down the Moonman for three days without success. On the fourth day, we had the luck to spot it near the stream forming a mound of sand with its bulbous fingers. That scene disturbed me; no other kind of blasphemy could come closer to it. The creature was building what appeared to be a sandcastle.
It did not have a right to do that as much as it was devoid of its right to exist. The Moonman had corrupted my innocence, and I thought I had nothing else to lose after that. I pegged my first rock with such murderous force my right arm ached in its socket that night. The rock hit the creature squarely on the forehead, and it collapsed against the stream bank. Yes, close your eyes now, Moonman, my mind shouted triumphantly. Close your eyes and seal those lunar craters on your skin forever. Let the earth feed on you and leave us in peace.
Then I saw red stuff ooze out of its hairless head. I could not believe what I saw but I knew it was blood.
Mel wailed, and all three of his rocks fell out of his shirt. Thud, thud, thud. Colder than the earth, the rocks whispered a rhythmic chant as they hit the ground.
“It was only a freak,” Judith said. “We’re murderers.”
Billy and Mel quickly found their way out of the dense undergrowth we used as a hiding place. They ran. Away. They never talked to me after that. Judith cried on our way home, and I never heard a word from her again. But I knew they had kept the secret. It was a pact none of us needed to talk about.
A month after the incident, I overheard my father talking to my mother about a decayed body near the stream two miles from the Lares House. According to my father, the police swore they never thought the remains could be that of a human’s until it was autopsied.
But I knew better.