Standish Treadwell often wonders about "what ifs." What if things, little things, had happened differently? Likely, the story he is about to tell never would have been. But the fact is, they did not happen differently and, as he so aptly notes, "what ifs are as boundless as the stars."
Standish Treadwell is dyslexic: words to him "are just circus horses dancing up and down." The kids at school tease him, chanting, "Standish Treadwell. Can't read, can't write. Standish Treadwell isn't bright." It is true that Standish cannot even spell his own name. He does have a story to tell, however, even though he dares not write it down, even if he could.
Despite his learning challenges, Standish is not stupid. He has an uncommonly strong imagination, and often sees things that others overlook. His old teacher, Miss Connolly, recognized this trait in him, and called him "an original." His best friend Hector appreciated it too.
Because he is considered "stupid," Standish sits in the back of the room at school, where he is "all but invisible." From this vantage point, even if he could read, the only word on the blackboard at the front of the room that he can make out is the huge one, stamped in red letters over a picture of the moon, that screams "MOTHERLAND." Standish is not paying attention on the day the note summoning him to the headmaster's office arrives in the classroom. He is lost in a daydream, imagining that he and Hector are in "the city across the water...where the sun shines in Technicolor." The world that Standish really lives in is dark and fearful; here, "the sky fell in long ago." Still, the boy had seen this other place once on TV, so he knows it exists, and he and Hector had invented a planet, Juniper, that is just like it, in all its wonder.
Standish is dreaming about being on Juniper, driving an "ice-cream-colored Cadillac" with his friend, heading home "for Croca-Colas in a shiny kitchen with...
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To underscore his sadistic contempt for Standish, Mr. Gunnell undoes the boy's tie before releasing him. To the hapless fifteen-year-old, this deed is the ultimate humiliation. Dyslexic as he is, Standish cannot do up his tie, and Mr. Gunnell knows it. The boy had kept his tie's knot intact for a full year, moving it down each day just enough to slip his head through, then closing it up again, "neat as a whistle." Now, the "undone, hangman's rope of a tie" makes Standish feel like giving up; to show up at the headmaster's office with his tie undone is akin to suicide.
Standish was able to keep his tie in proper order all that time because of Hector, who was his protector when he was here. Hector said that the tie was just a way of making everyone the same, "just numbers." Hector, however, was never just a number, and Standish wonders if he might have been "rubbed out" because of that. If Standish forces himself to be completely honest, he must admit that his despair about what Mr. Gunnell has done is less about the tie and more about the loss of his friend.
As Standish walks disconsolately down the corridor to his fate, Miss Phillips, one of the school wardens, comes out of her office. Seeing Standish, she perceives his sorry state, and asks sternly, "What are you doing, Treadwell?" Watching the camera that sweeps back and forth, surveying the corridor, she waits until "the all-seeing eye" is turned in another direction, then quickly does up the boy's tie and straightens his shirt. Putting her finger conspiratorially to her lips, she waits until the camera is turned toward them again, then commends Standish, saying, "Good, Treadwell...that is how I expect you to arrive at school every day." Standish is amazed to have encountered such an unexpected savior.
As Standish sits on the hard bench outside the headmaster's office, waiting for the bell to signal Mr. Hellman's readiness to see him, his thoughts turn to the day he met Hector. Standish has always been the target of bullies at school since, in addition to his complete inability to achieve conventional literacy, he has "one blue eye, one brown." There is a...
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The house that the new neighbors, the Lush family, now lived in had belonged to Standish's parents before they became "nonexistent." Like countless others, Standish's Mum and Dad had vanished more than a year previously. Their disappearances were unexplained, "their names forgotten, all knowledge of them denied by the authorities." The only person Standish has to take care of him now is Gramps, a tall, proud man, cunning like a "silver fox," who "[sees] a lot, [says] little."
Because of the war, and because so many people thereabouts had been "rubbed out," the dwellings on the Treadwells' street stood derelict and largely deserted. When the Lushes moved in, Gramps said that they were spies, which Standish understood to mean that the old man just did not want them to live there. Gramps actually suspected that informers in the neighborhood resided for the most part at the top of the road, opposite the hulking palace. The houses in that area were pristine, reserved for the Mothers for Purity, like Hans Fielder's mother and her friends. These citizens did "sterling work for the Greenflies and the men in black leather coats," spying and informing on others in return for easy access to food and clothing for their families.
When Standish asked Gramps why he thought spies would know how to get raspberry stains out of a white shirt, he received an answer that was cryptic at best. By the time the two ventured out, the curfew siren had sounded, and they were forced to make their trek via Cellar Street, a series of holes knocked through the basement walls of the houses along the block. After they had passed through the dank access and arrived at what had once been the cellar door to his parents' house, Standish and Gramps knocked politely.
After a "loud silence," the door was cracked opened by an emaciated-looking, graying, very anxious man who spoke the home language with a slight accent which Standish recognized as that of the...
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From that night, Gramps, Standish, Hector, and Mr. and Mrs. Lush spent more and more time together. It was not long until they melded into one family. Mr. Lush told Gramps and Standish that he was an engineer who had refused to work on a project for the Motherland, but he gave no details about the nature of his assignment. Mrs. Lush was "a doctor who had refused to eliminate the impure." Because of their recalcitrance, both husband and wife were exiled to Zone Seven.
Standish is jolted from his reverie when the bell indicating the headmaster's readiness to see him rings. When the boy enters the administrator's office, Mr. Hellman, who is standing, clicks his heels together and extends his arm out rigidly, exclaiming, "Glory to the Motherland." Standish half-heartedly reciprocates the salute, then notices a man in a black leather coat sitting in the corner of the room. This unexpected personage's face is hidden by a hat with a sharp brim, and "eye-socket-fitting sunglasses." The man's appearance is sinister, and Standish wonders why he is here.
It occurs to Standish that the man in the leather coat might be there to check up on Mr. Hellman, but he doubts this because he knows that the headmaster is not very important. Mr. Hellman's sole "claim to fame" is a cheap watch he has, which is awarded to couples with eight or more children. Standish knows that the headmaster's timepiece is worth little because he has seen with his own eyes a watch of far greater value; it had belonged to Mr. Lush, and it saved them all last winter.
The past winter had been so long and bitter that the little household reached a point where there literally was no more to eat, and nothing left to use for firewood. As Standish, Gramps, and the Lushes sat around the kitchen table, wondering what to do, Mr. Lush left the room and came back with something wrapped in a cloth, which he handed to Gramps, saying, "You know what to do with it, Harry." In the cloth was a watch of pure gold, which shone "bright as a star." Gramps studied the inscription on it thoughtfully, then commented, "If we can grind off the words it will get us out of jail." The...
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It has been only three weeks since Standish and Hector were planning their mission to planet Juniper. Mr. Lush had managed to rig up a television set, which enabled the family to access programs "from the land of Croca Colas," the wondrous place upon which Juniper was modeled. The pictures were in black and white, but Hector and Standish knew that the life depicted was "bursting with color." Their favorite show was about a lady named "ball," who was "all plastic perfect," and laughed all the time. Standish and Hector imagined that when they broke through to Juniper, everything in their own world would change for the better, and the "promised land" would be theirs.
Hector was assigned to the same class in school as...
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With his nose bloody and one eye half shut, Standish climbs out from behind the schoolyard bench. He notices something interesting—he is taller than Mr. Gunnell. Perceiving that the teacher is about to strike him with his cane, Standish boldly, and perhaps foolishly retorts, "You can't keep hitting me . . . I'm taller than you."
With the whole class looking on, Standish bends to duck Mr. Gunnell's fists and feels the weight of the cane on his back instead. Glancing up quickly and seeing the teacher's chin jutting out, Standish hits him hard under the jaw and shoves his arm out straight into his chest. As Mr. Gunnell trips backward, his toupee falls off and drops ludicrously onto the pavement. The entire...
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So that all might view the historic moon rocket launching, each school in the occupied territory of the Motherland has been issued a "working television." Standish notes the irony in the fact that "in this age of moon men," the television is old and "make-do" and that a teacher must struggle to position the aerial just so to get any sort of coherent picture at all.
Standish himself has no interest in witnessing the Motherland's great triumph. He and Hector had not bought into any of her "pure race chatty crap," having seen for themselves that there was "nothing pure" about any aspect of the Motherland's dominion.
It is the president of the Motherland herself who comes on the screen to address the masses....
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Standish is given no further instructions after being expelled, so he simply walks back to his classroom. On the way, he looks out over the playground, where he sees the leather-coat man walking with Mr. Gunnell past the body of Little Eric Owen.
Stopping, the man in the leather coat takes out a pistol and places its barrel against Mr. Gunnell's head; a single shot rings out and Mr. Gunnell falls to the ground. Standish is curiously unfazed by the execution.
Back in the classroom, Standish finds that Hans Fielder has cut the bottoms off his coveted long trousers in a show of solidarity with the rank-and-file oppressed. It crosses Standish's mind that Mrs. Fielder, who doubtlessly compromised much to get her...
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As Standish and Gramps continue toward home, they notice two plain-clothes policemen following them in a car. One of the men has a pair of binoculars, which he is using to lip-read their conversation. Standish and Gramps engage in innocuous chatter, and eventually, the men in the car speed away. Only then does Standish tell his grandfather about Little Eric, Miss Phillips, and the warning note.
At one end of the road where Standish lives are the grand houses where the privileged "Families for Purity" reside. At the very top of the road is that huge, hideous eyesore of a building with the legendary past. Today, that edifice is lit up "brighter than the stars," but of course, no one in Zone Seven dares to ask why. One...
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In the days after the football was lost, it rained incessantly, so Hector and Standish devoted their energies toward building their rocket. The newspapers, rare commodities to which Standish was introduced for the first time, were filled with "rubbish" about the Motherland and the great astronauts who were going to conquer space. The boys saved some of the more interesting pictures from these "propaganda rags," and used the rest as papier-mâché for their project.
An old ironing-board cover given to Hector and Standish by Mrs. Lush served well as an outer skin for the rocket; in the boys' imaginations, the cover would shield them from the radiation that Mr. Lush said surrounded the moon. Standish asked the...
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That night, Standish asked Hector what was on the other side of the wall. Hector clearly did not want to talk about it, and put his finger to his lips to indicate silence. Knowing that "the walls of the house were thin," the boys went up to the attic, where their rocket was hidden. When Standish once again demanded to know what Hector had seen, the boy finally admitted that he could not share that information with his friend, because of a promise he had made to his father.
Angrily, Standish was about to go back to bed, when Hector gently and unexpectedly asked, "Don't you want to launch the spacecraft?" Regarding their papier-mâché creation, Standish bitterly retorted, "You don't believe there is a planet...
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In the days after the Lushes were taken, Gramps and Standish knew that they were under surveillance. Even with the din of the radio blaring endless propaganda, Gramps "took to writing down what he wanted to say . . . half pictures, half words," so that Standish could understand.
Every night, to communicate an aura of normalcy to the listeners, Gramps would call out loudly to his grandson, "Good night!" But Standish did not sleep. Instead the two would huddle on the edge of Gramps' bed together until midnight, when the detectives in the car that passed constantly up and down the road took a break. The old man and the boy would go down then to that secret passageway of holes pickaxed through the basements of the houses on...
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On the day of the Motherland's space launch and the killing of Little Eric Owen by Mr. Gunnell, Standish realizes that he and Gramps are essentially goners—they will almost certainly never get out of Zone Seven alive.
When they return home after Standish is expelled from school, they find that the front door has been kicked in and the house has been ransacked. Knowing that the detectives are once again watching them, Gramps and Standish wait until midnight, when it is safe to go down to the cellar.
The first thing Gramps does in those nether regions is pick up the traps he routinely puts out with their daily catch of rats and deposit them near the stairs leading back up to the house. The two then...
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Standish and the moon man wait in silent dread until finally there is a noise in the garden. The moon man steals back down into Cellar Street, and Gramps appears at the kitchen door. Gramps is a mess—his face is "all smoky, his shirt torn and burnt."
In worse shape, however, is Miss Phillips, who stands behind him, badly beaten. Standish turns on the radio, which is playing music "for the workers of the Motherland." As Gramps goes over and puts a kettle on, he explains that Miss Phillips's house had been set afire; it had only been "a matter of time."
Standish brings a bowl of water to the kitchen table and watches as Gramps tenderly wipes away the smoke from Miss Phillips's face and tends to her...
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Writing furiously on a notepad, the moon man tells his story. He says that at first he sincerely believed he was involved in a genuine space mission, but before long, a colleague confided in him that the endeavor as planned was impossible as the radiation around the moon would incinerate anyone who approached it.
Soon after, the moon man was sent to Zone Seven, and the colleague in question disappeared. As it became increasingly clear that the Motherland's pioneering trip to the moon was "the greatest hoax in the history of mankind," the moon man was silenced because he dared to ask questions. He was not executed, however, because his face was still needed so that the Motherland could carry the colossal deception to...
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Upstairs in the bedroom that once belonged to Standish's parents, Gramps gives his grandson a wide belt to wear under his clothes. On the belt, written "large and bold . . . in Gramps's beautiful hand" is the word "HOAX."
It occurs to Standish that while he was being briefed down in the Cellar chamber by Miss Phillips and the moon man, this is what his grandfather was really doing; the cardboard figures "were [only] an afterthought." Lovingly, Gramps was crafting his contribution to the success of Standish's risky venture, knowing all the while that the endeavor would almost certainly result in his precious grandson's ultimate demise.
Standish dresses in the tattered clothes that Gramps has gathered for him...
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Two other boys who also did not at first volunteer are dragged out of the crowd and are marched outside with Standish into the bright sunlight. As he berates himself for not having paid more attention to what he has "volunteered" for, Standish notices a car park full of lorries that, according to the moon man, will ferry the thousands of workers away to "a nice gas bath" when their jobs have been completed.
Standish begins to doubt that he will be able to accomplish anything in this dismal place, other than ultimately becoming "maggot meat" like everyone else.
The boys who have been selected with him are "not yet as skeletal as others [Standish] has seen," but their thinness nonetheless makes him stand out,...
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Hector is nothing more than a shadow, huddled in the corner of the room. Standish sits down next to him, knowing he is hurt. "What have they done to you?" Hector replies darkly, "Nothing too bad . . . I still have eight fingers left." He explains that his little finger was taken "after they shot Mama" to show his papa that if he refused to cooperate, they would kill Hector too, "but slowly."
Although he is pretty sure he knows the answer, Standish asks, "What did your papa do?" Although it is "a secret not to be spoken of," Hector relents this time and tells his friend that his father was a government scientist who "dreamed he would send a man to the moon."
After seeing how the Motherland treated her...
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Standish has no idea how long he has been sitting there in the dark thinking about Gramps, Miss Phillips, and the moon man and wondering if they made it out to safety. He has been thinking about Hector too, his head "spin[ning] with all the many possibilities of the what-if game."
In an attempt to control his thoughts and maintain his equilibrium, Standish asks himself who he would want to be "right now, right this moment." He decides that he would like to be a Juniparian, with the "radiant vision" necessary to save Hector and all the others living in oppression in the Motherland.
Standish is beginning to lose heart, and he wonders, "what if I have it all wrong and I don't have the power to throw my stone?"...
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Standish is more nervous than he has ever been when "showtime" finally arrives. He knows that if he blows his chance, everything he has gone through will have been for nothing.
His heart sinks when he recognizes the leather-coat man up in the observation room, and he instinctively knows that his old nemesis is looking for him. To keep from being detected, Standish crouches low in the trench.
When the man in the brown overalls moves away for a moment to argue that a wind machine should not be used to make the flag blow about because there is no atmosphere on the moon, Standish takes the opportunity to release Gramps's belt with its damning word "HOAX" from around his body. Fortunately, the knot securing it...
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