When I was a little girl, I lived for just a few years in a little house in the state of Oklahoma. It was a normal sort of house in a normal sort of neighborhood, probably not unlike the one you live in now. I was friends with the little girl next door, and the other neighborhood kids were friends with my brother and used to come and play basketball on the hoop in our driveway. We all rode bikes and ran back and forth and had general good times on our safe, quiet little street.
There was only one yard we did not go to. It belonged to a large house, set back off the road and half hidden by overgrown trees. This house was always dark, which caused a lot of talk among the kids, but it wasn’t abandoned. The red car that was parked in the driveway was sometimes on the right and sometimes on the left and sometimes gone altogether, so someone must have been driving it. Whoever it was didn’t show his face much, though, or mow his lawn. The grass grew tall, sometimes as tall as our knees, much to the annoyance of the retired army sergeant who lived next door. Sometimes the sergeant would come over and mow the grass down himself, cursing under his breath all the while, to keep the neighborhood from looking ridiculous.
I avoided this yard, the same as everyone else, but I felt a strange fascination for its owner. I couldn’t help wondering what sort of life it was to be always in the dark and to come and go without anyone seeing you. An unseen life. The idea made me sad.
Once when I was wandering slowly by, keeping to the sidewalk but gazing steadily at the half-hidden house, I thought I saw a face starting back. It wasn’t at all like the face I had been imagining. It wasn’t at like any face I had ever seen, mostly because it was under a shock of wild-looking hair, and also was spotty and only had one eye.
I thought I must have imagined that last part. I told my brother about it, just to be safe. He laughed and said that I was a silly little girl. He said he had seen the guy who lived there coming out his front door and getting in his car one night just before dark. He said he looked like a normal guy and probably just worked at night. This sounded very rational to me, but I didn’t believe it.
Then one hot afternoon near the end of summer, I wandered out of our back yard and left the gate open. I didn’t mean to leave the gate open. I meant to be as careful as possible, but I was reading a really great book, and I didn’t want to put it down as I moved around the house in search of better shade, and I pulled on the gate, just not hard enough, and it never latched. I knew better than to leave the gate unlatched because we had a puppy named Panda, and he was always looking for a chance to escape.
Sure enough, Panda got out of the yard. I saw him streak by my reading spot and realized my mistake at once. With panic flooding my stomach, I dropped the book and ran after him. He darted around trees and in and out of yards, following some scent and his own joy. I called and called his name, but he knew this was his chance, so he pretended to be deaf. Before I knew what was happening, Panda had trotted right up to the high privacy fence that surrounded the back yard of the UNSEEN house. He squeezed under a loose board and disappeared.
There I stood, overcome with fear, trying desperately to decide what to do. If I went home and told someone what happened, I would be in big trouble for leaving the gate open. And what if something happened to Panda while I was getting help? Summoning my courage, I sprinted toward the back gate. I tried the handle and found that it was unlocked. Hurrying, so I wouldn’t have to think about what I was doing, I opened the gate and went into the yard.
It was the strangest yard I had ever seen, so strange that I stopped short and forgot all about my puppy for just a second. Neon flowers grew in spirals all over the place. Purple vines with triangular leaves covered the fence and most of the back of the house. A glass fountain stood in the middle of everything, with orange soda frothing into the air.
Next to this mesmerizing fountain stood Panda, but he wasn’t alone.
As soon as the gate clicked shut behind me, the mound of fur hunched next to my puppy straightened up and I was looking at a monster.
It was at least seven feet tall and had bright purple hair over most of its body. On the top, the hair stood straight up, giving him the look of someone who had stuck a fork in an electrical outlet. His one large eye and the pink spots that covered his furry purple face left no doubt that this was what I had seen in the window that time.
I turned to run, but my legs wouldn’t move. I opened my mouth to scream, but nothing came out.
“Don’t be afraid,” said the monster in the very nicest voice you could imagine. “I won’t hurt you.”
I turned around and saw that he had knelt down again next to Panda and was stroking his back. Now that he wasn’t towering over me, the monster didn’t seem so terrifying.
“Is this your dog?” he went on in his pleasant voice. “I just love dogs. What is his name?”
“P…Panda,” I forced out, relieved that my voice did actually work after all.
“Panda…oh! Like the bears! I can see why. He does have just the right Panda bear markings on his face. Very clever.”
I nodded, unable to believe I was talking about names with an actual monster.
The monster must have been thinking something similar because he quickly ducked his head. He was still petting Panda.
After a minute I forced myself to speak again, though it came out very squeaky, “I have to take him home now.”
The monster looked up. “Oh, yes. Of course you must. I’m sorry. It’s just been so long since I got to pet a dog.” He paused for a moment and then rushed on like he was nervous. “Do you think he could come back sometimes to visit me? Just, you know, whenever it was convenient? He doesn’t seem to be at all afraid. And I would take good care of him.”
I didn’t know what to say. It was true, Panda looked extremely comfortable sitting next to that ridiculous fountain. (I wondered if it really could be orange soda in there.) The monster’s face, which should have been terrifying, somehow just wasn’t.
“I guess,” I said finally.
“Oh good!” The monster stood up and did a little dance. He looked so ridiculous that I couldn’t help laughing. This made him act even sillier, until I was doubled over with giggles. Finally he began to laugh, too, and tumbled onto the ground.
“Oh! You don’t know how long it’s been since I laughed. Maybe when your puppy comes to visit, you could come along, too.”
Before I even knew what I was doing, I agreed.
And that is how I came to be friends with Jax. On my second visit, he told me his whole story over giant cookies and glasses of orange soda dipped straight from his fountain. He was from a land called Solax. (I never did quite understand his explanation of how you get there.) Solax was full of people who looked like him, but he had been sent away ten years ago.
“It was because of my…affliction.” He said sadly. “At first people just called me names, maybe laughed, maybe kept their distance. But after a while, they began to worry that my affliction was catching. No one wanted to risk that, so I was sent away, never to return.”
Obviously, I was really curious about what his “affliction” was, but I didn’t think it was polite to ask.
Panda and I made several visits to Jax’s house that summer. Jax always had fresh cookies and he always had weird flowers to show me in his garden and he always had interesting stories to tell about Solax.
The only bad part about being friends with Jax was that I couldn’t tell anyone. Who would understand a little girl visiting a big monster? Who would understand a big monster living on a quiet suburban street? Who would understand a big monster existing?
On the last night of summer, I made one more secret visit to Jax’s back yard. When I got there, though, he wasn’t there. I went to the back door and knocked. No one answered. I was so disappointed. The sun was setting, and I couldn’t stay long. School started the next day, and I knew I wouldn’t be a able to come visit much once I was in class all day and had homework and early bedtime and all those school things that made September so annoying.
I was turning to go home when Panda gave a loud bark. He was wagging his little tail crazily. I saw a face quickly whip out of sight in Jax’s back window. It wasn’t Jax, though. It was a young man with brown hair and a sad look on his face. My heart pounded. Had someone found Jax?
I couldn’t just leave without finding out. I crept forward and tried the handle of the back door. It was open. Panda and I slipped inside Jax’s kitchen. There at the little white table sat the young man. He stared at me without saying anything.
“Oh, um, excuse me,” I fumbled. “I….my…um…friend lives here. I just thought I’d say hi, but…um…I guess I’d better go.”
The man didn’t say anything, but Panda pulled away from me and ran over to him, wagging his tail and nuzzling against the man’s hand.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “He’s a really friendly dog.”
“I know,” said the young man. “It’s me.”
“It’s me,” he said again. “Jax.” He buried his face in his hands.
I didn’t move.
“So now you know,” he said finally.
I didn’t know, so I didn’t say anything.
“Now you’ve seen my affliction.”
I thought I began to understand, but I was still afraid of saying anything wrong.
“It only happens once a month,” he said, suddenly sounding eager to explain. “At the full moon. NO one can explain why, just as the sun sets, I suddenly lose all my beautiful fur and grow a second eye and shrink down to…this. But don’t worry, by the time the sun comes up tomorrow, I’ll be back to normal.”
I suddenly had the urge to laugh, but I didn’t. He seemed so embarrassed to look like a normal person. Instead, I tried to make him feel better.
“You know, you could come meet my family now,” I said.
“Oh, I couldn’t,” said Jax. “I have to do all my grocery shopping on this one night….to last for a month. And…” He looked down.
“What?” I asked curiously.
“Well, I don’t so much mind strangers seeing me like this, but I’d rather not let anyone else know me looking so…” He trailed off, clearly not wanting to insult me.
This time I did laugh.
So Jax did his grocery shopping, and I went home to giggle about what the checkout lady at the grocery must think about the strange young man who showed up once a month and bought the whole stock of orange soda.
I only lived in that house down the street from Jax for two years, and I made sure I never visited him on the night of a full moon. When I moved away, leaving him was the hardest part. He made me a huge box of cookies, so big that I almost couldn’t carry it down the street, and you should have seen my brother’s eyes when I came in the door with that box.
I let him eat one cookie, but I didn’t tell him where it came from. Cause some things are for sharing, but some things just aren’t.