Light filtered through the window to reveal me, sitting in a chair with the photo album’s slick back stuck to my bare thigh in the summer heat. Scared of the sound it might make if I moved it around too much, I tried to keep it steady and ever so quietly turned each page. Even this was timed to each beep of the heart monitor.
The photo albums were my mom’s, and I was pretty tired of looking at them. It was all that was left in the room to do, though, so I tried to imprint memories I had been too young to gain naturally into my brain. The pictures went way back into my childhood. A few were even pictures of my mom and dad before me, giving a rare glimpse into how their lives looked. The weird patterns on their clothes and colors surrounding them back when they thought had been cool.
Then, suddenly, we jumped forward from my baby pictures to my younger sister in diapers, me a toddler with a bunch of labradoodle curls poking out the top of my head underneath a big blue bow. I smiled, thinking about how my mom had even tried getting me to wear that bow in high school. For all I knew, she may still have it squirreled away somewhere.
“Aw.” There we were, a little older, with our grandma for the summer. That had been a fun summer. We weren’t the kind of kids who were made for summer camp, so one year our parents let us go and stay with her for a whole month. Granny had called it Granny Camp, and we had made pretend it was a special kind of summer camp made just for us.
I stayed on this page for a while. Now, I was in memories I knew I owned myself, and it was fun to skim through the pictures and relive the experiences. Just about everything involved with that summer seemed like magic to me, but it sometimes felt like I remembered it too vividly on my own. Having proof it was real felt nice in my hands.
More of the Granny camp pictures! But wait…. Some of the colors in these felt off, as though they’d been soaked too long in a chemical bath instead of snapped on a disposable camera in the nineties. And why were some of the trees and plants distorted? Almost stretching up and across the whole frame and bending in and out of focus, as though winding someplace?
And… who was that? In the plants, there was the small figure of a man who I never remembered seeing before. He was skinny as a grass stalk himself, with green eyes that seemed unnatural with the coloration of the photo. He poked out, half hidden behind the spindly skewed greens in almost every photo.
No. I had to be seeing things. I was old enough to remember this, and there hadn’t been some kind of miniature man right out of Thumblelina living in Granny’s garden.
“Kendra?” The whispered voice from the doorway startled me so much from my thoughts that I almost dropped the photo album to the ground. Instead, the schlicking sound it made against my bare thigh was enough to make everyone not blessedly in a coma cringe. My mother just shook her head as she beckoned me to the hallway.
“I think your aunt is going to order some soup to keep in the fridge. Do you want anything?”
“Um, sure. I’d have a bowl of whatever you get.”
Something in the hesitation with my answer or the look on my face must have really surprised my mother. She reached out and rubbed the side of my arm while giving me the most shaded, worried look I had ever seen. “Are you doing okay, sweetie? Someone else could sit in for a bit if you need a break.”
“No… it’s just…..” how did I even start to bring up the strange man in the photos? Although it might make me feel better to hear someone say I was just seeing things, it also felt too odd to even describe with words. “I just was looking at the photo albums is all. I had just come across that year Meg and I went to Granny’s house over the summer.”
My mom nodded, her eyes reverting to memories. “You had fun that summer.”
“Yeah, we all did.” But do you remember our little fairy friend from the garden?
“I know it isn’t easy to be here, but your grandma would be so happy you made it.”
I nodded. The words had their moment to come out, and then the moment passed. My mom gave me one last look dripping with her own sadness, and then off she went, down the hall to report on soup.
I took another breath in the hallway before heading back in to sit by my grandmother’s side. She shouldn’t be left alone for long. We all could feel that the end was close. It felt like the house breathed with me.
“Sorry for that, Granny.” I took her hand as I re-entered the room, checking for a pulse. “Mom was just asking about soup. You’d probably want Chicken and Rice, huh?”
Whew. The pulse was still there. Looking around the room, it soon became clear that something, however, was not.
“Oh-Kay…. Where did the photo album go?” It wasn’t in the chair I’d been sitting in. And this room, quickly done up at my aunt’s after my Grandma was rushed to the hospital, didn’t have too many places it could be hidden.
“Granny….” But one look at the old woman’s face showed there was no way she could possibly have been up and moving. Not even sleepwalking. Not at this stage. I must have done something with the photo album, but I really couldn’t imagine what. It just… had to be me. There wasn’t another option.
Geez, I guess I really needed that soup even more than I thought. I had to be going delirious from grief and hunger. Maybe a tinge of dehydration.
All the muscles in my body tensed, and I felt the hairs on my arms stand up in high alert. What the fuck was that?
It was coming from under the bed. It had to be.
A whole corner of the bed jerked an inch and then stopped so suddenly all that was left was the pounding in my ears.
And then, I saw it: what appeared to be a tiny leg and foot, no longer than the size of my pinkie knuckle, peeking out from the end of the bed, nearest the leg that had just made the miraculous move.
I gasped, and the leg stopped its straining motions to go dead still. But it was too late for that to help him. If this was a fever dream, I may as well see it all the way through.
So I bent down, ever so slowly, and flipped up the end of the duvet with a sudden, decisive motion, just like looking for bed bugs.
There he was. The little man. Just like in the pictures from Granny Camp. He was green as grass, slim as a walking stick, and, from toe to head, only about as tall as my thumb. Something about him felt just as off-putting as the photos. Like there was something even more unnatural to this than just a tiny man existing amongst the grass in the world.
There, beside him, was my mother’s photo album. In fact, it looked as though it had been what had hit the corner of the bed and started dragging it along the little man’s escape route. “Hey! That’s mine!” I reached for it without thinking.
The man blinked at me once—or it seemed that he did. His face was constantly going in and out of focus, but it felt more like the lens in my eye wasn’t able to take the picture before it than the fault of anything the little man was doing. Then, with a sudden jerk of all of his lanky limbs coming awake, the little man ran around to position himself on the other side of the book and began tugging with all his might.
“Really?” It seemed like it would be easy for me to take the book back, but the little man must not have had little strength. The book hung between us until my elbow hit the bed stand, causing the box springs to dislodge a dust bunny square in the little man’s face.
“Aha!” I sat back on the floor, the book once again safely in my lap. “Why did you want this, anyway? And who are you?”
The little man stared at me so long I was worried he might run away and make a break for the window on the other side of the bed. But he didn’t. Instead, his eyes kept flicking between me and the book. It was obvious he still felt he wanted it, or maybe felt entitled to it, even if I couldn’t understand why.
But…. And this was still if I was giving myself over to the fever dream…. If those pictures were to be believed, then I technically had to know who this man was, right? He had been a part of my childhood. And he wasn’t exactly hidden in the photos. That meant my family had to know about him, right? And think it was fine to let their kid play with him?
I leaned in to get a closer look, and the man started back. “Hey, I’m not going to hurt you.” I admonished. Hopefully he understood. He hadn’t replied to anything else I had said. “I’m just trying to figure out who you are.”
He stopped moving backward, and I ever so slowly tried moving forward again. No sudden movements. He seemed less startled this time. And I got my first good look at him—all besides his face, which still twisted and curved out of focus like a kaleidoscope in a fun-house mirror.
“Who are you?” It was starting to get annoying, even for a fever dream.
The man opened his mouth to speak, but all I heard was the rustling sound of grasshoppers, which wasn’t helpful at all.
Was he just something so …. Odd? ….. to this world that nothing about him could stay in focus here?! How had these photographs even been taken, then, if he was so impossible to even see or get any kind of grip on?
Suddenly, the little man stilted forward a step. The movement abruptly halted as soon as it had begun, as though he were startled by his own audacity. Instead, he began gesturing toward the photo album.
Did he still want the book that bad? Why? Was it just because it was one of the few photos he’d ever had taken that didn’t just make him look like some grass?
Wait…. That was it!
“I don’t know who you are still, but you’re a genius!” I gave him an awkward thumbs up and started diving into the album.
Of course! He had photos in here. Regardless of how they had been taken, they were taken, and then someone had seen fit to save them for posterity alongside my family photos growing up. Knowing my mom, and her knack for documenting family history, there was every probability that there was some kind of writing designating the little man’s photos.
However, before I could flip the photo over to read the writing on the back, there was a knock on the door of my grandmother’s death chamber and the door knob was turning. At the sound, the little man sprang into action. He was in my lap before I knew it, grasping the photo out of my hand and springing away again, under the bed.
“Hey!” I reached after him, but he had disappeared who knew where in the shadows.
“Hey, yourself. I’m only trying to bring you some soup.”
“Mom, I—” Again, the words about the little man dried up on my tongue. She’d probably just think I was delusional. And now one of my strong pieces of photographic evidence was lost with the subject in question.
“What, dear?” She busied herself setting up a TV tray for my soup. It seemed like she was trying to do anything but look at Granny.
“It’s nothing.” I sighed.
“Are you getting tired? Someone else can have a turn, you know.”
“No….” I trailed off. It wasn’t that she was trying not to look at Granny, I realized. Just that she was taking small peeks, from the corner of her eye. Maybe Granny seemed more alive that way, with only a partial view.
“Which pictures are you looking at?”
Mute, heart trembling, I flipped the book around. Was she about to bring it up herself?
“Oh, still Granny Camp, I see. Aw, your poor Uncle Evan. It’s been so long since I saw these pictures.”
“Uncle Evan?” I could have sworn There hadn’t been an uncle at Granny Camp. But then again, I didn’t remember a small green man, either.
Mom nodded. “Oh yes. The poor dear was almost wasting away when he stopped in for a visit. Maybe you’re too young to remember…. He wouldn’t have been very lively, like how he was when I was a kid.” My mom’s eyes grew far away again, remembering days and months that had gone by before I’d ever even been born. “He was the life of the party then.”
“But he… he came to Granny Camp? Is that… him?” I pointed to one of the remaining pictures of the small green man.
My mom nodded. “Yes. You can see how small he looks here. The drugs were really affecting him then. All the doctors said it was almost the end.”
“How small… was he?”
“Oh, about the size Granny is now, I guess. Sunken skin around the eyes, and so many folds for wrinkles…. Well, he’s almost unrecognizable.”
I stared at her, mouth gaping wide. No, she didn’t see the small green man. She saw…. uncle Evan? But a full size man, just wasting away from illness and frailty? Why did I see him as a small, green man then? Why was that all the pictures showed me, if that wasn’t really how he had looked? And if Uncle Evan was completely in the past, what was a small green man doing here now?
“Do you mind if I take this out there? I think your aunt would really like to look back on some of these, too.”
I nodded my assent, and my mom left, promising to send my release along in an hour so enjoy the soup. No sooner had the door shut than I was crouched over, shining my phones flashlight into the dim shadows under the bed.
It took a while, but eventually I found him the same way I did earlier: one spindly limb poking out around the side of the bedpost. He was sitting on the floor with the picture in his lap, staring not at himself in the photo, but at Granny beside him.
He started, in a way different than before, and that was all it took for me to know. In some form or another, this was my uncle. I guess as I’d always known him.
“You passed not long after that was taken, didn’t you?”
He nodded. I swallowed the sudden lump in my throat, scared of the next question that had just popped into my mind when I realized what photo he had taken.
“Are you here… for her?”
There was a moment of stillness. And then, another nod. I let out a breath I hadn’t realized I’d been holding, and tears threatened to fall for the first time. It was really happening. After all the health scares over the years, and even when I’d already known this was probably it, it still cut to know…. This was really, really it.
The green man walked over and sat next to me on the floor. He sat his palm on my hand, and for a moment I remembered him from that summer in my youth. An old man shriveled like a prune but trying to laugh enough for all of us. How had I forgotten? Or had I just tried to replace death with something that seemed a little more … alive? And how had my memory been replaced with this green man? It didn’t feel like the right time to speak, and I probably wouldn’t be able to understand him anyway, but I wished I could ask the green man for answers.
We sat like that for a while as I let the tears fall. The soup got cold, but no one noticed. Instead, the dead uncle patted his live niece’s hand until the eternal clock finally saw fit to set off an alarm.
When Granny’s breathing gasped and stuttered, it was hard to tell at first if it had really stopped. I questioned it for a minute, running around her side checking for a pulse any way I knew how. And then, as I turned for the door to get a second opinion, I saw that the green man—Uncle Evan—was no longer by the chair where we had sat together. Instead, he was sitting in the windowsill. Beside him was a small green woman. They waved at me as they jumped over to the other side with the last of the sunlight.