Fair Trade
by Steve Schlich

Andy had to play dead for the next five minutes. Those were the rules. Marty had gotten him fair and square from his hiding place in the bushes. Andy lay on his back with his toy gun and looked up at the sky. Lance would be angry, but he'd get over it. Lance got mad no matter what. Besides, it was a great day to watch the clouds drift by.

The sky was full of them. There were puffy white ones and long, flat silvery ones. You could find any shape you wanted in them. The one like a spaceship he'd seen earlier was still there. Now it looked more like a flying saucer.

Andy imagined the saucer-shape floating down from the sky and landing in the field where they played. While the others ran away or stood with their mouths open, he would walk up to the ship. He'd smile and wave to the visitors inside, and they would come out to meet him...

"Bang! Bang!" Marty leaped out of the bushes again with his toy rifle. "Bang! Your time's up. You're dead for another five minutes!" He turned around and took off before Andy could say a word.

"Oopsoh well," Andy thought. He took a worn copy of Outer Space Adventures from his back pocket and wiped it clean on his shirt. The cover had a painting of a flying saucer parked next to a farmer's barn. Chickens and cows jumped around the barnyard in fright. The farmer stood with his fist wrapped around the handle of a pitchfork and dropped the pipe from his mouth. Night Visits, the caption read.

"I wish they'd make a day visit," Andy thought. "Today. Right now!"

"Boom! Blam! Bang! Bang! BLAMMO!" Lance and Marty danced in a circle around Andy with their toy guns on him. "Bang! Bang! Boom! You're dead for the rest of the day!" Joey ran up with his gun and looked around, but he didn't shoot.

Lance grabbed the magazine from Andy and looked at it with a frown. "You'd rather read about spacemen than play war with us," he said.

"No I wouldn't."

"Yes you would! You still believe in that. . . crap!"

Andy bit his lip. "They could be real. You've got xenophobia."

"Zeen-o-what?" Lance laughed. "You don't even know what it means."

"I do too! I read it in there." Andy pointed to the magazine. "It means you're afraid of aliens."

"I'm not afraid of you." Lance waved Outer Space Adventures at Andy. "My dad says this stuff is stupid. Only dummies read it."

"It's not stupid!" Andy said angrily. "They trade me for stuff. I give them sandwiches and they give me alien rocks. Look!" He pulled two smooth, round pebbles from his pocket and showed them to Lance. They were the size of Andy's thumb and had dark galaxies mixed with white like a swirl cake.

"Did you ever see them?" Marty asked with a grin. "Spaceships? Aliens?"

"No, but"

Lance was laughing hard. "Ha-ha-ha! Some dog is probably eating your sandwiches, and you think it's spacemen!" He threw the magazine to the ground. "What a dummy!"

"I believe him," said Joey quietly.

"Ha, you would!" Lance tackled Joey and pinned him to the ground with a thud. "Bang! You're dead. Bang! You too, Marty. I win!"

"Owww, get off me. That hurts!" Joey was trying hard not to cry. Lance had jumped on him hard.

Lance got up. "I told you we shouldn't let him play. He always gets hurt."

They were on different teams, but Andy felt sorry for Joey. "He can't help it," he told Lance. "You're bigger than he is."

"Poor little poor boy," Lance sneered. "Your mommy doesn't feed you enough."

Lance was right. They were all ten years old, but Joey was small and thin. He had six brothers and sisters and they didn't always eat regular meals. Andy had watched him gulp down school lunches, green beans and all, and then mooch seconds from everyone else. Andy gave him his own green beans whenever they had them.

"My mom works hard," Joey said proudly.

"Yeah, with no daddy," said Lance. "I bet that's why you believe in spacemen, too. No daddy!"

"I've got a rock too!" Joey cried. "I traded too. Look!" He held a round stone like Andy's in his hand.

"Hah!" Marty laughed. "You guys are fakers. Those rocks come from the river."

"No they don't, let me see." Andy put out his hand and Joey gave him the rock. It was pink with soft chocolate splotches on it. "Wow, that's neat!"

"C'mon Marty," said Lance. "Let these dummies play with their rocks and spaceships."

They started to leave. "You never saw anything," Marty told them. "If you weren't so chicken, you'd wait and catch the aliens when they took your sandwiches!"

"That would spoil it," Andy said when they had gone. "They wouldn't come back if I caught them."

"Yeah," Joey agreed. "That would spoil it."

But Andy didn't like being called a chicken. After dinner he made two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and went out to his "launch pad" while his parents watched TV. He might get into trouble for being out too late, but when the aliens came this time, he was going to see them!

The "launch pad" was a clearing in the trees at the edge of their war field. It had always seemed like a good place for a spaceship to land. Andy put the sandwiches on a big stump in the middle of the clearing and covered the sack with a small branch. Then he climbed a tree and waited for darkness.

The woods were full of night sounds. Wind whooshed through the trees and crickets chirped loudly. Andy thought he heard a spaceship land a dozen times, but nothing happened. He was about to give up and go home when a twig snapped in the distance. Andy stayed very still and soon another twig snapped, closer to him. Someone was coming!

Moonlight shone through the trees in thin slivers, but most of the clearing was deep in darkness. Andy strained his eves to watch a small figure pull the branch off the stump. The alien! Where had he parked his spaceship? Andy was almost afraid to breathe. Should he climb down and try to meet the alien? Would he scare him off?

The alien took a sandwich out of the sack and began eating it in loud gulps. Andy smiled. The spaceman was really hungry after traveling through space tonight. Andy was glad he'd brought two sandwiches. He wasn't going to climb down the tree and spoil the alien's meal. They could be better friends from a distance.

The first sandwich was gone quickly. The alien patted his stomach and stuffed the other one into his outfit. He put the branch back on the stump and ran into the forest. Andy wanted to follow him to his spaceship, but when he got down there was no trace of the little man. It was too dark.

Dark! He had to get home. His mother would be very angry if he stayed out any later. Andy rushed to the stump and felt under the branch. There was a small round rock there, as usual. He slipped it into his pocket and headed for home.

He was in his room when he looked at it again.

It was a beauty, all pink instead of white, with soft chocolate splotches instead of the usual swirls. Just like Joey's rock

"Oh no!" Andy cried. He thought about the alien in the woods. "Joey took those sandwiches!"

It made sense. Joey lived near the river. He could get the rocks anytime. The little man had been about his size, and tonight he'd given away Joey's rock.

Joey was the alien!

Andy felt gypped. No wonder Joey believed his stories! He'd been eating the sandwiches all the time. There never had been any real aliens or spaceships. It wasn't right. It wasn't fair. It wasn't

He remembered the first sandwich. The "alien" had eaten it with real hunger, Andy could tell that even in the dark. It was the same hunger he saw when Joey gulped down his school lunch and looked around for more. It was a hunger Andy didn't think he'd ever felt.

The pink stone looked nice on his shelf with his other alien rocks. Andy looked through Outer Space Adventures again and thought about all the fun he had trading with the aliens. Sandwiches for rocks. Food for dreams. It was a fair trade.

Tomorrow he would bring two sandwiches to the launch pad again. The spaceman would probably be hungry. Communicating with Earthmen was hard work!

copyright (c) 2000 by Steve Schlich


Written in 1981.