PART 3: The Green Man
Wednesday was the slowest day ever. I didn't go to school because Mom and I had the appointment with Dr. Sellers in the middle of the morning and she said that since it would take us a while to get done with the appointment, we might as well stay home. She had called the high school the day before to get a substitute teacher, so I got to spend the morning with my mom. We watched cartoons and Mom helped me put together my Halloween costume.
Unlike Bradley and Logan, who had picked out their costumes weeks ago, and Jack and Joey, who were too young to care what they were for Halloween, I was a little more particular about what I dressed as. I never liked the costumes at the stores, so I always had Mom or Dad or Meggy help me make something. This year, I wanted to be a super hero from one of my favorite comics, but I wanted to make it a little different by adding a cape and a mask instead of a helmet. I had my old green sweatpants and sweatshirt (since green was my favorite color), and while we had been shopping for my older brothers' costumes, we had stopped by the bath aisle where I'd found a nice, big, bright green towel to use as a cape. With a little bit of glue, glitter and paint, Mom was now helping me finish up my mask.
At ten o'clock we left for the doctor's office, my mask drying atop a paper plate on the kitchen table. Dr. Sellers was really nice and she always gave me a sucker when we left, especially if I had to get a shot. Today I didn't need a shot. She mostly talked to my mom and then scribbled something on her clipboard. On the way out, my mom picked up a bag from the lobby. The new medicine I was going to try.
"Dr. Sellers says you can start taking this tomorrow," she said as we returned to the car.
I nodded somberly, my mouth too full of lime sucker to say anything.
When we got home, it was lunch time, so Mom made us some peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and I drew and colored in my sketchbook while Mom did some work on her laptop. Later that afternoon, we had to pick up Logan, Bradley, Jack and Joey, and by the time we returned home we were all bursting to get out of the car.
I looked for Meggy when I walked through the front door. It was after three, so she should have been home, but she was probably in her room studying. Meghan studies a lot, but most of the time I think she just likes the quiet of her bedroom. It can get pretty noisy with all us boys running around the house. Sometimes, I wish it was just her and me, and then I feel bad for wishing it. I love all my siblings, but I think I'm more like Meggy when it comes to quiet time.
The twins had scattered all of their toys over the living room floor and Bradley and Logan were on the side of the house where the basketball hoop was attached, practicing their shots.
I padded across the carpet, sidestepping a herd of plastic triceratops and an army of small, dark green soldiers as I aimed for the sliding glass door in the kitchen.
"Outside," I said to Mom as I passed.
"Okay, honey," she responded as she chopped vegetables and tossed them into a frying pan. "Be careful. You know how competitive your brothers can get."
I nodded and with great effort, heaved the door open and then slammed it shut behind me. The only reason Mom let me go out with my older brothers alone was because she could check on us through the glass door every now and then.
Outside, the air was crisp and cool, but the sky was a clear blue above. Bradley and Logan were playing a one-on-one game and as soon as they saw me Logan said, "Good! You can get the ball for us when it goes out of bounds. And you can make sure it doesn't go down the hill, okay Aiden?"
I nodded and crossed the concrete, plopping down on the edge of the low retaining wall to watch them. I was perfectly happy with this task. As much as I'd love to play basketball, I knew I wasn't nearly nimble enough to be any good. Most likely, I'd trip over my own feet and cause everyone else to fall over me. Nope. Basketball wasn't my thing.
Logan dribbled past Bradley, shoving him aside and making him stumble. He sped toward the hoop, tossing the ball a little too hard. It slammed against the backboard, then bounced off the rim and headed straight for me.
"Get it, Aiden!" Logan cried.
I felt my eyes widen and I stood, stretching my arms up as far above my head as I could. I guess I moved too slow because the ball bounced right over me and went flying down the hill onto the equestrian trail behind our house.
Both Bradley and Logan threw their heads back and groaned.
"You were supposed to stop it!" Logan pointed out.
I glared at him. Well, at least I tried to glare at him. I wanted to tell him that I had been trying to stop it.
When I continued to stand there, Bradley threw his hands up in the air. "Aiden!" he complained. "Go get the ball! It's your fault it went down there."
I looked up at my older brother, wanting very much to punch him. I didn't like it when he bossed me around. I hated it even more when he blamed things on me that I had no control over.
Logan turned to Bradley and said, "Don't be stupid. He won't be able to find it. It went too far down the trail. I'll just go get it."
Bradley made another whining sound, but I wasn't paying attention. Sure, I didn't like being bossed around or blamed for things, but neither of those was worse than people thinking I was helpless.
Screwing up my face and mustering all the energy and concentration I could, I shouted, "No!" then, "Get ball."
Without waiting for my brothers to consider what I had said, I spun on my heel and crawled through the fence, almost tripping over the plants growing on the small slope that led down to the trail. I would show both of them I could do something as simple as find a lost basketball.
Plucking dead leaves and tiny, broken twigs from my hair and clothes, I stumbled out onto the wide dirt path. The local horse owners used this trail a lot, so the sand was soft and deep in some places. And there were 'road apples' everywhere. That's what Bradley and Logan called the horse poop. They thought it was so hilarious and sometimes they threatened to throw them at me when I didn't do what they asked. Fortunately, I stayed inside most of the time. Having big brothers was such a pain.
Sidestepping a nearby pile of road apples, I headed farther down the trail, following the large, basketball-shaped divots in the sand until I spotted a small groove that indicated which direction the ball had rolled. And my brothers thought I was an idiot. I bet they didn't know how to track a basketball.
I took my time locating the ball, mostly to get back at my brothers for being rude. It wasn't hard, since it was so nice down in this canyon, what with the tall eucalyptus trees creating plenty of shade, their sickle-shaped leaves rustling in the breeze far above my head. On the left side of the trail, the hillside fell away about fifty feet down into the swamp below. Small shrubs and young trees dotted the slope and made it pretty much impossible for anyone to cross, unless they wanted to end up full of blackberry thorns and stinging nettle welts.
Fortunately, I spotted the basketball only a few more yards down the path. It had rolled pretty far, almost halfway down to where the trail curved to the left to cross the shallowest part of the swamp. I was glad I didn't have to go down that far. The tree branches curved overhead and made it dark and spooky, and it just didn't feel right even from far away.
I stepped onto the dead grass tangled along the side of the trail, zeroing in on the ball, its bright orange color standing out like a disregarded safety vest. The basketball had wedged itself between a tree stump and a pile of dead brush someone had piled up to make a fort. It was a few feet from the path and I had to climb through the shrubs a little to reach it.
Placing my foot on a large branch, I leaned forward, my tongue sticking out of the side of my mouth and my fingers stretching toward the ball. I heard the crack before I felt my weight give out underneath me. The branch, which had looked sturdy, was really rotten in the center. I pitched forward, the ball breaking loose as well, and the both of us crashed halfway down the hill. I landed in a small clump of overgrown shrubs beneath a willow tree, the ball stuck between me and the ground. I tried moving, but my ankle hurt and something sharp dug into my shoulder. Taking a careful glance to the side, I realized the pain was caused by a blackberry branch that had come loose from the main plant several feet away.
As I lay there, I reflected in silent misery on how I'd been so proud of myself for being smarter than my brothers. Now, I was hoping they'd come looking for me soon. I tried getting up, but my ankle twinged a little and I rolled back onto my side.
Just when I was about to give up and start screaming to get Bradley and Logan's attention, I heard something rustling in reeds somewhere in front of me. I rolled over again, trying not to make my ankle worse, and blinked out over the swamp. Most of the marsh was clogged up with reeds and cattails, with only a few pools of blackish water visible from what I could see. A small patch of the plants had been shoved aside and smashed flat, giving me a clear view of the shore on the other side.
The opposite shore was littered with dead, brown eucalyptus leaves, the trees from which they'd fallen spread out just enough to create a meadow of sorts. A clump of poison oak, the leaves going red for the autumn, crawled up each of the trunks of the trees like scarlet lace. Beyond the meadow were more trees and shrubs growing thick and crowding the side of another slope.
As I studied the view, that rustling sound from earlier returned, this time accompanied by a strange growling. Immediately, I became completely still, not daring to even breathe or blink. I knew that sound. Whatever was moving on the opposite shore was a ghoulie. Would it see me stuck under the tree? Would it try to come after me this time, now that I was helpless?
Before I could think much more about it, the ghoulie pushed free of the reeds and scurried up onto the dry land, shaking itself like a wet dog. I didn't see why it would. It's not like it had any fur to keep dry. Instead, a scattering of coarse hairs, like those on a pig, stuck out from a hide that looked to be the same shade and consistency as dried tar. It had a long snout complete with bright white, pointed teeth that didn't fit all the way into its mouth, and a tail as long and thin as one of the reeds growing in the mire.
The ghoulie had pulled something out of the water and was now pinning it down with clawed feet and tearing at it with its teeth. I narrowed my eyes, but the only thing I noticed about the object was that it was red and brown. Some small animal, most likely.
Just when I was certain the ghoulie would finish its meal and move on, another one came charging out of nowhere, slamming into the first with enough force to knock it off its feet. The first ghoulie tumbled into a patch of poison oak, the dead animal still clutched in its teeth as the other readied itself for another attack. The creatures were a good thirty yards or so away, and blocked somewhat by the water and the reeds, but I wanted to get out of there as soon as I could, just in case they smelled me or sensed me somehow. I jiggled my foot experimentally and was relieved to find the pain in my ankle wasn't nearly as severe as it had been ten minutes ago. Maybe I hadn't sprained it after all.
Before I could roll over and start climbing back up the hill, something unexpected happened. As the two ghoulies circled one another in a game of tug-of-war with the dead thing, a long, thin object came darting through the air and lodged itself into the first creature. The monster screeched, the sound a combination of hard chalk grating against a blackboard and a rabbit screaming. I ground my teeth together as goose pimples popped up all over my skin. Another one of those long sticks came flying from the right and I realized what they were: arrows. The second arrow struck the other ghoulie in the face, and as it added its own cry of pain, it turned its head in my direction. I felt my face pale and my stomach turn over. The arrow was sticking out of the monster's sunken eye, the flesh smoking where the arrow shaft touched it. It staggered for a moment longer then collapsed to the ground.
Some more rustling on the slope announced something else approaching. Oh no. Were there more ghoulies out here? Instead of an entire herd of monsters, a huge white dog burst free of the brush on the other side of the meadow, coming to a stop next to the dying ghoulie. I gaped in complete surprise. He was big enough for me to ride, if he was my dog, and he was all snowy white except for his ears. They looked like they were dark red or brown.
Just when I thought I couldn't get any more surprises today, the branches of the far oak tree parted and someone stepped out into the meadow. It was a man, I think, because he wore dark green pants and a long, olive green trench coat, the kind guys in the army sometimes wear. The coat was hooded and the man had the hood pulled over his head, so I couldn't see his face at first. In one hand he carried a bow, almost as tall as he was, and there was a sack of arrows flung across his back. He approached the meadow cautiously, his boots making barely any noise against the leaf litter and fallen branches. When he came within ten feet of the dead ghoulies, he held up a hand and the dog walked over to his side. The gloves he wore were the same color as the jacket and the fingertips had been cut off.
I swallowed hard. Maybe he was one of the strangers Mom and Dad had warned me about. They told me that some people lived away from others, and that some of these people were dangerous. They had always told me that I should assume they were all dangerous, just to be safe. I scrunched up my nose, trying to decide whether this stranger was dangerous or not.
After scratching the dog behind the ears, he moved closer to the ghoulies and got down on one knee. I wanted to shout out and warn him that the ghoulies were not natural and that they might still hurt him even if they were dead, but then an even more profound thought occurred to me: only I could see the ghoulies. If he had shot them and was now looking at them, he could see them too.
The man reached out and pulled one, then the other, arrow from the dead monsters. He wiped the arrow tips on the ground, then, without even looking, returned them to the quiver on his back. As he started to stand, he reached up and pushed the hood back from his face. I couldn't really see it from where I hid under the bushes, but his hair looked dark and he was really tall. Taller than Dad. Taller even than Kevin, our neighbor down the street who played basketball for the high school where Mom worked. He was bigger, too, almost like a Viking from one of Bradley's warrior encyclopedia books. I couldn't see his eyes at all, even when he turned his head as if to survey his surroundings. Panicking a little, I buried my face in the leaves, inhaling dust and the scent of damp mildew. My heart was thundering in my ears and my ankle began to ache a little. Had he seen me? I hoped he hadn't. I was wearing Bradley's old camouflage zip-up sweatshirt, but something about this stranger told me he might be able to see me even if I had buried myself under all the leaves.
Eventually, I heard a light whistle and the sound of movement across the water. Gathering up my courage, I lifted my head just enough to peek out with one eye. The stranger and his white dog were gone, and where the ghoulies used to be there were only two black piles of ash.
Before he got the chance to come back, I squirmed around until my head faced uphill once again and, using one arm to push the basketball ahead of me, I crawled back up the hill. Once out on the horse trail again, I spun around, wincing a little because of my sore ankle. It didn't hurt that bad, but it still bothered me a little. Besides my ankle, the tops of my hands were a little scratched from the blackberry vines, but at least I hadn't fallen into a patch of poison oak or stinging nettles.
"Aiden!" I heard someone call out.
I jumped nearly five feet, my heart staying airborne even when I landed back onto solid ground.
"Aiden, let's go! It's almost dinner time and you know Mom's gonna make us do homework after!"
It was just Logan and Bradley, finally looking to see what had happened to me. There was no way I could tell them, even if I wanted to, about what I had seen and heard. They would just assume I had tripped and fallen, like I sometimes do. As much as I hated the way my autism often made me slow to react and unable to talk clearly, in situations like this, it was probably for the best.
I finished brushing off the dead leaves and sticky, moldy dirt and scooped up the basketball. Without glancing back down at the swamp, I turned toward home, praying that there were no more ghoulies and no more strangers with huge dogs.
Yet, while I hurried back up the trail, the events of the last several minutes spun around in my mind like a colorful pinwheel in the wind. Who had that man been, and why was he able to see the ghoulies? Where had he come from? I had never seen him in our neighborhood before, and I was good at noticing new people.
As I turned to climb up the slope leading into our back yard, I thought about one more thing that unnerved me about the Green Man, something I hadn't even noticed at first because he was all covered up by that coat. When he had pulled his hood back to look at the ghoulies, his skin had been glowing, just like mine and Meggy's.
Thank you for reading this third installment from Aiden's point of view! Hopefully I'll have the next installment up soon. In the meantime, discover the Otherworld with the first book in the series, Faelorehn. The ebook is free on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, iTunes, Kobo and Smashwords! The audio book edition is also available from Audible, Amazon, and iTunes.