Claude Longly sat hovering over his second cup of coffee of the evening in one hand and the second cigarette of his third pack of the day between the thick, stained brown fingers of the other. He had long ago rationed himself to three cups in the evening and it was only eight o’clock. There were four or five hours of life left to go in the day and he had no idea how he was going to make it through with these self-imposed restrictions as he unfolded the summer 1967 edition of Briggs’ Western European Bride’s Registry.
He patted down the dog-eared magazine as though it were a piece of precious art. A tingle sparked in his fifty-four year-old cobweb crisscrossed crotch. The international guide to what some might refer to as a catalogue for the social deviant was Claude’s, all two hundred sixty-eight pounds of him, link to the fantasy fabric of his very private world.
Jimmy-Dean Stiles sang on in that distinct, homespun twang over the portable radio sitting on the kitchen table. Stiles had been a sensation when he first appeared on Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry back in 1963. Bouts with drugs and alcohol plagued him until his death at the age of 26, after which his two albums had become prized collectibles. Claude listened for a second to the end of his favorite tune. It was about a range-hand who was contemplating his last lost love, the one he might someday have and the possibility of losing that woman too because of his cowboy ways. Claude understood human flaws were as natural as dirty fingernails and trail dust. And in his world, you couldn’t avoid either.
“Hey, you fat ugly bastard,” the voice echoed in from the front yard of his house, “Get out here and let’s get going.”
Claude folded the magazine into a drawer along the side of the table and stood to his six foot, one-inch frame. It was the eight pounds and not the two hundred sixty that had been gnawing at him recently. He was a big man by any standards, with a girth in neck, waist and temperament to prove it and yet all he wanted right now, except for a cold beer down at Angel’s, was to soak off a few pounds from his ancient hide, if only for Charisse’s sake. He picked up his Stetson cowboy hat, his grandfather’s treasure purchased with a handful of Nevada gold dust back in 1906, and kicked open the screen door to confront a lazy, warm Texas evening haze.
“Son of a bitch, if only you had something important to say you’d make a hell of a friend,” he said to Rawley Saunders who was leaning against his battered red pick-up. “Powerful thirst tonight.”
“I’m thinking the world is going to come to an end real soon so we’d better drink our fill before there ain’t nothing left to cool us down.”
“Spoken like a man of reason,” Claude said. He pulled open the truck door and pitched himself into the cab. It stank of warm beer and stale cigarettes and the sweat drawn from the spirit of a generation of farmers, ditch diggers, roustabouts, contractors, cowhands and malingerers. It was home and transportation to both men for as long as they could recall. They were friends from childhood and school, and each had a failed marriage and a general inability to make more out of their lives than one might have expected.
Rawley Saunders was almost as tall, almost as heavily built, and almost as cynical as his friend was. His parents were in a nursing home which he visited every week or month or so, or as often as his conscience demanded. Tonight he was edgy with words floating and forming in his mind that he thought he would never speak. Words and feelings, fears and suspicions that clung to the inside of his skull would not give him a moment’s peace. And he had the lingering suspicion that this night was going to be just as unsettling as the last. He switched on the engine and dropped his foot on the accelerator sending the battered Chevy careening down the dirt road, kicking up a pale rooster tail of dust.
“So, now that we’ve got the pleasantries out of the way, how do you feel about flying saucers?”
“Flying, flying saucers?” Claude asked, unsure if this was the beginning of a joke.
“What the hell other kind is there?”
“Well, personally, I like them southern fried with lots of onions and mashed potatoes, though I’ve heard that you can make a mighty tempting chopped saucer salad if it’s marinated properly.”
“A saucer smartass?”
“I mean, dickhead, that I think I saw one last night,” Rawley said, checking for shadowy images in the rear view mirror, something he rarely did even when driving through the heart of Montgomery Bluffs.
Claude waited for the punch line as though the tail end of the joke hadn’t yet arrived. It didn’t come. Nothing came except time and hot, dry Texas air pouring through the half open windows. Place not fit for man nor beast, were the words of his forefathers. Then why stay? Why not go to a more favorable climate? Why not pick up and move to southern California or slightly north? There had to be some place where a man could take a deep breath from late June to early September and not scald his lungs.
It was the idea of Texas, its bravado, its defiant renegade nature, its macho motto of ‘Don’t Tread on Me’. It was the Texas Rangers, it was the legend of Sam Houston, and the simple size and course texture of the land that had taken him over since he was young enough to swim in the lakes, fish the mountain streams and wilt under the glare of an unending summer sun.
It was Texas, his Texas that kept him proud of his very existence, as though merely to survive in this state meant more than being crowned king in any other.
“You’re thinking I had a little too much to drink last night,” Rawley continued. “Off the record, I did, but that don’t hamper my judgment one damn bit.”
Claude knew that for all his faults, Rawley was not a liar. He lacked the imagination and cunning nature for it. “Go on.”
“You don’t believe me.”
“Didn’t say as I did, and I didn’t say as I didn’t.”
“Well, I saw what I saw and that’s a fact,” Rawley said maneuvering around a particularly badly rutted section of the unlit road. This stretch probably hadn’t been resurfaced since after the Second World War. Maybe even the first.
The outcropping of a roll of fat in his midsection caught Claude’s eye. He patted down his shirt and adjusted his belt. It didn’t lessen the tightness that his fat put on the fabric. “Why didn’t you call me right off when you seen it?”
“Damned if I know. I just sat there watching it cruise along over the horizon, a yellow slit of light with a tiny red dot at the rear of the thing for about fifteen or twenty seconds. Then it vanished.”
“Could be a plane.” Eight pounds was all he wanted to get rid of. It wasn’t all that needed tending, but it was a beginning.
“Planes don’t have red flames coming out of their engines, in spite of what the cartoons show, you fool.”
“Could be a flying, fat old palomino with a lit cigar up its ass too. We get a lot of those critters around here this time of year.”
Rawley slammed on the breaks and turned to his best friend. “Claude, I saw it. I know when I seen something. Not much else, but I damn well know that much.”
Claude didn’t want to talk about flying saucers. He wanted to talk about Charisse, the tall, leggy brunette who took up a full quarter of page twelve of Briggs’ best. He couldn’t get her shape out of his mind. He had opened the catalogue to page twelve so many times since first discovering her a week ago he could picture every curve and contour of her exuberant, twenty-three year-old body. Her biography indicated she was originally from Belgium. Her family had migrated to South Africa in order for her father to pursue a job as an engineer in the diamond fields. She’d lived there since she was eight and wanted to come to America long before her parents were killed in a house fire. It all sounded as terrible as he believed it plausible. Anyway, she was beautiful and by this time, Claude was certain, had more than enough offers from which she could chart the future of her life.
Claude shook himself free of his reverie. “Didn’t say you didn’t.”
“I can tell you,” Rawley said kicking up the Chevy, “if you had told me the same tale, I would be a lot more accepting.” He was pissed with Claude in an unaccustomed way. He believed, wanted to believe, that his best friend would be equally alarmed, curious and concerned. When it was clear that he wasn’t, it was as though Rawley had been betrayed. And, what made it worse was that he was just as unsettled the night after, as he was when it had happened. He wondered what it would take for him to get over it, or if he would ever know for sure if what he saw was real.
Claude suddenly realized that each of their first names – his and Charisse’s – began with a ‘C’. That was a meaningful sign. “Okay, so you tell me all about the flying saucer disguised as a horse with its ass on fire and I will tell you about Charisse and by the time we get to town I’ll let you decide which tale sounds the more believable.”
The hour-long trip from Claude’s ranch to the West Texas town of Montgomery Bluffs would be long enough to hear Rawley’s story many times. With each new, more elaborate telling, Rawley became more and more engrossed in exploring the details, the possibilities, intrigue, and minutiae of his experience. Claude was interested, as curious about what had really happened to Rawley as he was by the noticeable absence of any other traffic coming from or going toward Montgomery Bluffs. By the time they’d passed Indian’s Ridge, a quarter-mile wall of red sandstone outcropping that shot up a hundred feet into the air at the exact halfway point in the trip, the tapestry of what had happened to Rawley had become so enriched even Claude had to take notice.
It was minutes past eleven last night when Rawley couldn’t bear to listen to another minute of news. He finished off his beer, went into the darkened kitchen to get another and decided on his back porch instead of settling in front of his television for the rest of the evening. Sometime later, he woke on his porch rocker, not certain what roused him, and spotted an object moving slowly across the horizon where there should have been the most visible swath of prairie blackness. Rawley had been looking over the back of his ranch, a few hundred acres of bare scrub fed by a tired trickle of a river for over fifty-two years. He knew every hill and ridge, every tree, wash, dried out gully and termite mound. And he knew when an act of unnatural desperation had invaded his life.
At first, he thought it was the beer. He shook his head but the apparition remained aloft and indifferent. He stood and steadied himself. That didn’t change the vision before him either. He even rubbed his eyes. Nothing helped. From where he was standing the object looked like a long silvery-yellow stick with a dot of red at the back, or rear, of what he decided to call an aircraft. The entire sequence lasted for less than a half a minute before it disappeared.
This was the first description given to Claude and the only one in which Claude placed any credence. The rest of the unfolding tale was too artificially inflated to warrant serious consideration. Maybe he was wrong about the limitations of Rawley’s imagination. In the end Claude’s only response was, “Well, I don’t know what to say.”
“You believe me, don’t you?”
“You should’ve called the police.”
“And tell them what?”
“What you saw.”
“And get a reputation as the crazy of Montgomery Bluffs?”
“You wouldn’t get any such reputation,” he said, though he was as instinctively unconvinced of this as he knew Rawley was going to be.
“Remember what happen to Pete Driscoll over in Hawthorn back in ’61?”
“He thought he saw monsters.”
“He was drunk as a skunk and ran his car off into a ditch and he fell out and when he came to, with the help of a passing state trooper, it was the next day. He claimed he’d been attacked by a giant four-legged monster with a mouth full of razor white teeth.”
“It was a Gila monster licking the bourbon off his beard when he woke.”
“The fool was blinded by the sun and his hangover. He never got over the humiliation. You know what it did to him. They were laughing behind his back for years.”
“You should. He came to you for advice.”
“I didn’t know what to tell him.”
“But you know what to tell me.”
“This is different.”
“Maybe it is and maybe it ain’t.”
Tired of arguing, Claude asked, “So, you’re going to keep it a secret?”
“I don’t know.”
“What if others saw it? You never know. There could be hundreds who witnessed the same damn thing. There are a dozen ranches over in that direction. Someone else had to have seen it.”
“You think so?” Rawley had never thought of it that way. How stupid could he have been? All he had to do was ask around at Angel’s if anything strange had happened to anybody the night before. If others observed the saucer, he would come out and claim he also witnessed the aberration. That made him think he was behaving as if he were a coward. Why did he have to wait and be the second or tenth person to claim the sighting? And how come he hadn’t thought that others might have seen it in the first place? He knew Claude was a little smarter than he was. Only sometimes, like when Claude scored so well on his high school geometry final, it was difficult to face.
“Absolutely,” Claude said and returned to the images of Charisse climbing onto his flaming red cock and lowering herself down in a giggling wiggle of delight. He was going to do it. He would fill out the application. What the hell, he reasoned. All that could happen was nothing. And nothing was all his life was about anyway. The nothingness of his days inexorably turned into weeks and drifted in aimless months and tiresome years. The nothingness of living off his parents’ fragile resources, his pension, and money the government paid him not to plant peanuts. It all added up to a bare subsistence that seemed to suit his sullen, hermetic nature.
He stared absently at the dirt road ahead, feeling the impact of every pebble in the road as the Chevy rushed down into the depths of the warm Texas night. It was going to be another Saturday night in Montgomery Bluffs. Another dozen beers with the dozen friends reliving out the dozen tired stories that each brought with them that everyone had heard before. How can any life be condensed and conveniently summarized into a dozen predictable stories? How can existence have so little meaning? How could he have hesitated, and not filled out the application to the agency that represented Charisse the moment he saw her bright blue eyes and dazzling voluptuous shape and kind, understanding, winsome gaze.
“What?” Claude said without looking. He wanted to turn around go home and fill out the form and pretend he had done something decisive in his life. He wanted to break the tiresome routine of a tortured, predictable existence.
Rawley pointed. “There. Up ahead.
“Jesus Rawley, it’s probably a Martian waiting to gobble us up.”
“Fucking funny, are you?” he said, slowly bringing the Chevy to a dead stop.
“With a pair of foot-long fangs and three blood-red eyes,” Claude rambled on until the object moved closer into the flaring yellow headlights. If seeing was believing, as some said, then Claude would have preferred not to have been so observant. What the hell was it, where had it come from, and what the flying fuck made it move? The fact that an animal so large and so hideous could move at all sent chills through his body. His first instinct was to throw open the door and run. His second was to wonder if he had fallen into someone else’s’ nightmare.
“What the hell is that?” Rawley questioned quietly, then again, without moving his lips.
Claude had no idea except that it had, and this made no sense, what looked like three blood red eyes. Damn thing stood ten or twelve feet high and had shiny, wrinkled silver skin, short arms and something he couldn’t describe hanging from the sides of its enormous black head. “I think we should get the hell out of here,” he suggested, though he was unconvinced about the substance of what it was that he was supposed to be frightened of.
“Right,” Rawley said, and quickly shifted into reverse. He pressed down on the accelerator pedal but the truck didn’t budge. “What the fucking, Jesus-mother-of-god, is going on?”
“Rawley, this is no time for games,” Claude said, as the thing approached.
“I can’t get it into reverse.”
“Then go around the damn thing,” he said, still unable to accept the fact that he had been able to predict that the animal would have three blood red eyes.
“Right,” he said, this time shifting into drive and gunning the engine. Again, the truck remained at rest. By the time both men realized that the only thing working in the Chevy were the lights and their racing hearts the creature was no more than a dozen yards away. “I think I’m scared.”
“It can’t be real.” As soon as Claude heard the rationale of his own words the tension that had gripped him vanished.
“Then what is it?”
“You got your rifle loaded?” he asked, just in case.
“I always have my rifle loaded,” Rawley said boastfully and leaned back and plucked the seasoned Winchester 30-30 from the gun rack over the back of the seat. “Now let’s see whose fucking with old Rawley Saunders.”
Claude watched his friend get out of the truck, take a few steps and position himself between the headlights and bring the Winchester up to his chest as though he were the Marshall defiantly standing in the way of a band of cattle rustlers about to take over his quiet little town. Rawley jammed down on the rifle lever then pulled it back up sending a cartridge into the empty chamber. He set the butt to the crease of his shoulder and demanded that the thing stop moving or he would fire. It didn’t respond and it didn’t stop. A dark green vapor spit out from a slit that appeared near the top of the head.
But it was more the top of the beast, then a head in the conventional sense and form. Another, smaller spurt of vapor spat out, followed by a strange gurgling noise as two long fangs erupted from the seam of its gaping mouth. A long, incredibly thick tongue lunged from between the fangs and licked out a dozen feet in front of the beast. Rawley got off two shots before it fully retracted back into the head. The impact of the bullets seemed to have little effect.
Claude slumped back in the seat of the Chevy in shock and amusement, as though he had switched channels on his television in a drunken stupor and found himself watching a bad black and white, grade ‘B’ science fiction movie from the late ’50’s. He watched Rawley become enraged and the animal move another threatening step closer in response, though it was difficult in the night shadows to discern the creature’s exact means of locomotion. “Kill the bastard,” he said. Of course Rawley couldn’t hear him what with the Winchester coughing out three more bullets in the night. The creature shook its ugly head in defiance and continued its approach.
Rawley fired off another half dozen rounds until the Winchester was spent of cartridges, then turned to his disbelieving friend in the front of the Chevy. Rawley was frightened and angry. Why hadn’t Claude gotten out to stand at his side against the beast? They were alone. The truck wouldn’t move. There were no other cars or trucks on a road that normally saw its share of evening traffic. He raced back to the safety of the cab knowing he had no more cartridges in the glove compartment. “Now what do we do?”
“You mean we should just sit here and wait to be killed?”
“You don’t think this is really happening do you?”
Rawley couldn’t believe his ears. He might question seeing a flying saucer; however, there was no doubt in his mind that they had encountered a creature from another world only a half-hour outside of town. “What the fuck animal do you know that could shake off a dozen shots from a 30-30 at this range?”
“Maybe you missed.”
“Maybe you’re crazy,” he said now getting seriously offended at Claude for not standing at his side when they were both in such danger, not to mention the fact that at that distance he could have hit the bastard from Mars blindfolded.
“Rawley, it’s not happening. It can’t be,” Claude said, finally realizing how differently he was responding to the apparition than Rawley was. He couldn’t bring himself to believe it. He would wake, they would wake, from this dream and get drunk over the embarrassing foolishness of it all. After all, hadn’t he dreamed up the creature with the three red eyes and two long fangs before it had come into view? How could he have known about the fangs and eyes if his imagination wasn’t in control of the unearthly phantasm? Why didn’t Rawley understand this?
“You’re fucking crazy,” he screamed back. “Of course it’s happening. Are you completely nuts?” He frantically searched through the wreckage of the glove compartment, and under the seat to see if any cartridges had fallen there. “That’s a space monster out there. It probably came from the spaceship I saw last night and if we don’t get our asses in gear it’s going to kill the both of us.”
“When pigs fly, Rawley. When pigs fly.”
“We’re going to die out here you idiot.”
“One minute I describe a creature and the next it’s standing in the roadway? Come on. Of course, it’s not real. You’ve heard of mass hysteria. Whole groups of people seeing and living through the same traumatic events which never really took place.”
“Look, you can talk your dick off in here. I’m going to make a run for it.”
“Run? Run where? We’re over ten miles from town and almost half again that distance from my ranch and at least three or four miles from old Simmons’ place. It’s pitch black out there. You’d break your leg in a breath.”
“It’s better than sitting here and getting killed by that thing from the saucer you don’t believe I saw.”
“So, that’s what all this is about. To prove what you saw, you’re trying to make me believe in the impossible,” Claude said, nodding in the direction of the creature, which had closed the distance to the truck. A row of short tentacles was now visible jutting out from around its midsection like a cat’s whiskers probing the night air for predator and prey.
“Ghosts and goblins? Witches and warlocks?”
“No. Just one old fool who wouldn’t believe his eyes,” Rawley screamed, getting back out of the Chevy. “Are you coming with me?”
“No. I’m going to sit right here, and sooner or later that thing will vanish, I’ll switch on the engine, which is probably only flooded, and go into town by myself and polish off half a case of cold beer while you’re wondering around out there.”
“Sooner, rather then later, you’re going to be dead.”
“Ooooh, you’re scaring me,” he clowned.
“Claude, this is no joke,” Rawley implored. “It’s real and you’re going to die if you stay here.”
“From that silly thing?”
“Yeah,” he said, finally realizing that he wouldn’t be able to save his friend, “from that silly thing.” He checked the chamber of the Winchester once more, decided not to leave it behind, and slammed the door. By the time he turned, the beast had advanced to within yards of the truck and was upon him. Its long, ropy tongue slipped into a tight coil around his neck before he could react. He turned back to the door but was yanked away from the handle as he tried to get back into the cab.
From inside the truck Claude watched as the mottled, fleshy lasso tightened around Rawley’s meaty throat. The beast moved still closer and embraced a flailing Rawley Saunders. Again and again Rawley struck out with the butt of the Winchester. Then the creature bent its head and plunged the two dagger-like fangs into Rawley’s chest. One of the fangs pierced through the side of his ribcage and tore a hole in his coveralls. Blood quickly spread down his side. The beast shook its head violently, further embedding its fangs into Rawley’s now limp body. After a few more seconds, the animal’s tongue slowly uncoiled from around Rawley’s throat.
Claude shifted uneasily, but was not yet alarmed. Nor did he consider himself a fool. He might be a lovesick middle-aged man, but his mother didn’t raise some featherheaded farmhand. The animal’s arms, or whatever you wanted to call them, released Rawley from their grip and he sank down against the side of the truck. The beast raised its head and let out a piercing shriek so loud it shattered the truck windows into a million fine shards. That, and the fact that fine white glass dust covered his body, got Claude’s attention.
Sitting in the Chevy in the middle of nowhere with the glass blown out of the windows by this towering creature sent Claude into a panic. He couldn’t see Rawley’s body. He knew his friend was dead and he was only moments away from joining him. And the only thing he was confident would save him was speed. Even at his weight he knew he was agile enough to outmaneuver the animal.
The creature’s eight or nine stubby tentacles flicked curiously about its midsection. They looked powerful but were not quick. Its two arm-like appendages fell limp at its sides. It was the tongue’s viper-like evilness that he had to outdistance. He wondered if the beast had a death ray or could spit out poison pellets or fry his brain simply by wanting to do it. He opened the door, slipped out, and backed away from the Chevy without losing sight of the beast. The animal was still standing over Rawley on the other side of the truck, a predator unwilling to leave its kill, its fangs soaked in the blood of his dead best friend.
Claude backed off a few more feet, feeling somewhat confident about saving his own life, turned and rushed into the near darkness before finding himself confronted by three more creatures. They stood in a tight semicircle, their mouths agape, fangs ready, the belt of small tentacles around their waists vibrating with what he could only assume was excitement. Before he had time to respond, their tongues flashed out from their mouths like the whip of a circus ringmaster and flailed about his head, cutting off his escape. He punched and dodged the airborne snakes as the three creatures advanced over the rocky terrain.
He wanted to turn and run, but every direction was cut off. He would need a miracle to save himself and, not being a particularly religious man and steeped in the practicality of his own limitations, he knew he was going to die right here, halfway between his home and Angel’s Cafe. This was going to be an incident that would not be added and recounted every Saturday night at Angel’s. No one would ever know what had happened to him and Rawley out here in the middle of the barren Texas plains.
The beasts caught his body in their powerful grip and he was lifted, and brought up close to one of them. He continued to fight, to kick and curse, to scream and yell. It was no use. He wondered how much weight each of these beasts could lift with their tongues, then realized that with three of them, even his weight probably wouldn’t be a problem.
If he wanted, if he could have loosened his arms from their crushing grip, he could have reached out and touched the set of white fangs sprouting from the opening on the tops of their bodies. His body was encased in the combined power of their three tongues, like three giant boa constrictors vying for the same prey. The head of one of the monsters jerked down as it had done to Rawley, and Claude felt a pair of cutting sabers penetrate deep into the side of his shoulder and slice down through the center of his chest. The shock of the pain was so great all he could do was gasp.
His eyes closed, as did the tentacles around him, as the terror before him disappeared. He drifted for some time, holding hands with Charisse, and watching adoringly as she removed her tight red lace bra and placed it over his head. He thought he looked foolish, except in the lush privacy of her father’s sixty-five foot motor yacht anchored somewhere in the southern Mediterranean it seemed like the right thing to do. She got up on a small wood table and danced for a while, slowly taking off her skirt and letting her panties slip halfway down her deeply curved butt.
They cut tightly across her abundant pink cheeks and around the other side of her fleshiness, barely hiding the brown tuft of hair that fringed her warm, welcoming pussy. She danced and looked down at him standing there with her bra on his head and a silly, confused expression on his face. She danced until the weight of the bra became too much to bear and he fell to the floor of the yacht.
When he woke, Charisse was standing over him in a crisp white nurse’s uniform. Two bright yellow overhead lights were staring down at him. Doctors and other nurses hovered around the table he was on in the middle of a large white room. People were talking, giving urgent orders and directions to others out of sight.
“You’ll be all right,” Charisse said. “The monster’s poisonous fangs punctured your lungs, sliced your heart in half, and severed your spine in two places before coming out of your back.”
He tried to respond but was so weak and horrified all he could do was blink weakly.
“But, hey now, don’t worry! We’ve seen this kind of wound before. We’ll have you fixed up in a jiffy,” she said in a charming, disarming mix of French and South African dialect. Claude wanted to ask her about Rawley. His old friend had died because Claude failed him. He started to cry. Charisse came and wiped the tears from his dirt-stained cheek. “Now stop that. We can’t have you crying right before your big operation.”
The word ‘operation,’ stopped the tears in their tracks. “What operation?”
“Well, we have to open you up and take out what was and put in what has to be.”
Charisse was so pretty he suddenly remembered how lonely he was when the impact of her surgical description settled in. He was being wheeled down a long, bright white corridor by some unseen forces while Charisse walked by his side. One of the wheels, he guessed it was the right front wheel of the gurney, was not perfectly round or was broken or something was embedded in its surface. He tried to picture it going round and round and each time it struck the floor of wherever he was it sent a short, sharp shudder into the entire cart. You would have thought they, whoever they were, would have tended to that before they captured him, he reasoned. “What has to be?” he finally asked.
“Oh, what you don’t believe.”
“That anyone would cross the ocean to marry you or that pigs will fly before flying saucers.”
“We’ll looking at you now, it’s hard to say you’re the most eligible bachelor.”
“And the saucers?”
“Oh, them. Yes, they’re real, and have been here for thousands of years. Earth years, I am told. And now, here we are,” she said, taking some hand in maneuvering the gurney through two swinging doors.
“Where are we going?”
“We’re not going anywhere because we’re already here.”
Claude couldn’t recall the last time he thought Charisse had said something he considered clever as he was wielded into a large, darkened room. He could hardly make out the faces that were strange, both in substance and size. They sat atop wrinkled silvery forms that were both familiar and foreign. They did not move, or speak, or affirm the safety or danger present. They might as well have been wooden cutouts or cartoon characters. But Claude knew they were real, if not of this earth. He wondered what they were going to do to him and how much pain he was going to have to endure before he died. Really died.
Because he was a man of some physical presence, he knew people assumed his size was an indication of his strength, his endurance, or ability to withstand discomfort. Nothing could be further from the truth. He hated pain. As a child he would cry like a baby if he stubbed his toe, cut his hand, or banged his knee. Of course, as he grew he managed to conceal this minor inadequacy. Since he was usually the biggest boy in his class, few if anybody noticed his reaction when his body met with a sharp, certain obstruction.
As he lay there and heard voices surrounding him, he began to whimper, softly at first, then in slow, jerking wretches. Finally, his body rolled in sobbing convulsions. They were going to cut him open, cut off his balls, tear out his eyes, and rip out his brain all while he was perfectly awake. What humanity could he expect from an invading species? To them he was an insect, a subject of curiosity on a small, inconsequential island in an obscure galaxy of a trivial universe. He tried to summon his courage, but there was none to be had. He tried to work out his next step, except critical thinking was never his strength. He tried to stop crying and he was at least partially successful at that. And, if he wasn’t scared before, the sight of Rawley bending over his shaking body made the throbbing terror that had consumed him, complete.
“It only hurts in the beginning.”
Claude watched Rawley’s lips move, heard the words, and was so close to his boyhood friend he could smell an acrid odor on the man’s breath. There was something wrong with Rawley’s eyes. They were half-closed, expressionless, as if the real ones had been removed and fake, mechanical eyeballs implanted in their place. Claude felt as though he should be apologizing to Rawley for something, he just couldn’t think what.
“What are they going to do?” he asked, in a hoarse whisper.
“It only hurts in the beginning.”
“Rawley, you have to help me get out of here,” Claude said, trying to lift his head and wrestle himself free of the metal restraints.
Rawley kept repeating, “It only hurts in the beginning.”
“Oh, shit,” Claude said, imagining himself and Rawley down at Angel’s, drowning their regrets in bourbon and cold beer, and complaining about how other countries should take more notice of how things are done here in the United States. “We’ve found the way to get things done,” Rawley would say, confident that there would be no argument from those surrounding him at the bar.
The lights went out as another hot bright light bathed Claude’s now naked body in a glaring yellow-orange glow. He saw himself as a large, fleshy white specimen strapped to a dissecting table for the contemplation, intellectual amusement and enjoyment of a conquering race. For a brief moment he was embarrassed about his size then, suddenly, very proud, knowing these creatures had no way of knowing what were acceptable standards on earth were.
There were noise and voices that sounded unlike anything he had ever heard. A low mechanical humming sound started from somewhere low and off to his left. As it increased in pitch a large mechanical arm rose over his body and hovered there, moving sharply left and right as though it were searching for prey. It reminded him of one of those robotic arms that worked on automotive assembly lines in Detroit. It had so many sharp mechanical prongs and probes, moving parts that had smaller and nastier looking parts; it made his heart squirm in terror.
“Dear God, please hear my prayer,” Claude said as the fingers and blades of the giant beast descended. “Please forgive my sins. I’m a weak and stupid man. I drink too much and I curse way too much. I take no responsibility for my life and I never go to church. God, I know that’s wrong. But I don’t hurt no one and I don’t cheat or steal or lie much as some say I do, and I believe in Your goodness and almighty power.”
His prayers became more insistent as the humming sound got louder, as he could sense the mechanical monster lowered its maw closer and closer to his vibrating, straining body. What had they done to old Rawley, he wondered. And was he in for the same treatment? He wanted to ask somebody. He felt like he was at least owed some explanation. However, those were earthly perspectives. And these were definitely not earthly creatures.
Right then and there Claude recalled and regretted how he had cheated on his tenth grade geometry final. The girl sitting next to him was the smartest kid in the class and he was fortunate to be sitting so close to her. Every once in a while he caught a glimpse of an answer on her test paper. Anything she had was better than what he hadn’t. For that little help he was grateful. Than, as if an answer-angel descended from heaven, she raised her hand and said she was feeling sick and asked the teacher if she could go to the bathroom. Immediately.
The teacher was so alarmed by the urgent, pained expression on the face of her favorite pupil she opened the classroom door and let her into the hall. She made sure the girl, who was bending over by this time from the roiling distress caused by all the fruit she had eaten for breakfast, got to the bathroom before she had an accident. No one except Claude was paying attention to the exposed answer sheet on the top of her abandoned desk. Before the girl returned, the teacher whisked the nearly completed test paper from the desk and held it tightly in hand until the little girl returned, though not before young Claude had quickly deciphered the pattern of its markings.
“Dear God, please, if you’re listening, one more thing,” Claude began as he felt a sharp, cutting pain in the center of his abdomen. He let out a terrible, agonizing cry, pulled in his midsection, raised his head in shock and tried to drown out the insult to his insides and the destruction of his senses. He had no idea how long the evisceration lasted or its outcome. He only knew Rawley had lied. The pain never left. His brain and every nerve in his body meticulously recorded each razor sharp incursion into his entrails from right above his dick to right below his throat. He thought he had shredded his vocal chords by his wrenching cry for an end to his suffering, and pleas for final sanctuary.
He woke to sounds and voices, only this time they were near and familiar, and substantially less threatening. There was movement about his midsection as small, tentative shadows crept over his face. Little creatures crouched over and poked curiously at his crumpled, fully clothed body. They were small and common and welcome, though they did little to tame his confusion and doubt. They asked questions and made childlike observations. Their language was punctuated with caution and uncommon giggles. They were children of his land. His earth. His, sacred Texas.
“Are you all right, mister?” one asked.
“I think he’s drunk. My dad looks like that a lot after he drinks.”
“No, stupid, he don’t stink. He just looks,” the young boy said haltingly, then concluded with, “odd.”
Claude considered that a compliment. He rolled onto his side and let out a loud, groan. Pain was everywhere. His chest and gut were on fire. He felt unconstructed, as if he might tear himself apart by the simple act of breathing.
However, he never expected to see the light of day, smell the scent of his land, or hear the voices of humans, even patronizing ones, again. He expected to wind up like the stilted android that was all that remained of his friend. He raised himself up, first to his side, then to his knees, then, finally, to his feet, as the pack of children pulled away apprehensively. The more he pressed himself into reclaiming himself the more the pain diminished.
“It’s okay, kids. I’m okay.”
“You have an accident?”
“In a way,” he said noticing the red Chevy was nose down in a shallow gully a few dozen yards away. “Rawley?” he thought to himself, than asked the kids, “is there another man? A little smaller with a gold tooth, here,” he said pointing to his upper teeth.
One of the taller children came forward. “We only found you.”
Claude smacked the dust from his torn shirts and pants. “You’re not from around here, are you?”
“Can’t say as we are,” one of them answered.
“I thought I knew most of the children around these parts,” he said to the four of them.
“We’re from over there,” one said, pointing to an unfamiliar range of hills in the distance.
Claude judged it to be late afternoon. There was no sign of Indian Ridge or any other familiar stretch of land, or life itself. And, thankfully, after the accident and terrible dream he had survived, there was no craving for coffee or cigarettes and no sense of self-pity; something that he knew had been his constant companion since his parents passed away.
The fact that he had lived, in an odd way, through a terrible dream was no longer in doubt, though quick confirmation of his friend’s whereabouts would have been comforting. He felt his extremities as though anticipating that more than an active imagination had taken control of his life. An image of a yellow orb with a small red dot spitting from its tail flashed through the rubble of his mind. He swallowed a few more times, exaggerating the movement to test the bounds of a throat he assumed he had inflamed into ruination. There was no feeling of pain or echo of hoarseness. That was more reassuring than he first admitted for if what he thought really happened he couldn’t imagine using his throat again until, well, until pigs fly.
“You need some help?”
“No thanks,” he answered, genuinely thankful for their assistance.
Claude wasn’t certain what he should do next, question the children, resurrect the Chevy, or just sit down and review all that had happened in the last few, what, hours? He glanced down at his watch and noticed that it was gone. It was probably lost in the crash as, apparently was Rawley and, if his pockets were any indication, his wallet, money, keys, a practically toothless comb, and old shopping list? “Damnation,” he muttered wanting to, than deciding against calling back the pack of children who were, where?
They had vanished, as had most of his identity. As had his recollection of this part of the county. He turned and struggled to cover the distance to the Chevy. He yanked open the door and was shocked to see that the inside of the cab had been stripped of everything from seat to gun rack. No, that was wrong too. It hadn’t been stripped of anything. The sides and floor and insides of the doors were almost brand new. The windows and windshield were intact. He stepped back from the truck, glanced around, grabbed his shirt and pulled it open.
Claude fell to his knees in shock and despair, and sobbed as he now knew he had only hours or days before. His midsection and chest were crisscrossed with deep, undulating pink scars. The scars weren’t sore or painful to the touch but, from the stiffness under the skin, it was clear that something foreign, alien had been planted into his body. Most likely, the same procedure had been used on Rawley.
“What now?” he asked himself, afraid of the answer. There was no truck crash. He had wanted to hang onto that possibility for as long as he could. But there was no denying the violent insult his body had somehow endured. They wanted him alive and, though he wasn’t certain exactly where he was, here he was.
His ranch could have been a hundred or a thousand or a galaxy of miles away. The Chevy, a poor imitation, as was the desert that surrounded him, was a suspicious indication and offered no clue as to the alien’s intentions, nor did the children that moved about with mechanical curiosity and disappeared. He was positive that he was being watched. As certain as he was that Rawley was dead and whatever figure spoke to him was merely a synthetic recreation, like everything that now surrounded him.
Claude took a few steps towards the Chevy again then turned back toward where his ranch was supposed to be, the small, leftover of a relic of what his parents had once dreamed would be the heritage that would serve their children for many generations to come. By the position of the sun, it was a few hours after noon. Walking at a few miles an hour, with no water, he might make it back before midnight, if he wasn’t picked up by a passing car or truck, first. If it weren’t there, then, well, that would be no surprise either.
Massaging his side, he glanced up and down the road as though a car or truck would come along with a driver who would quickly explain what had really happened to him. However, after several minutes of fruitless waiting and numbing confusion he was left with no course of action but to return home, no matter where that turned out to be.
He took a few hesitant steps then turned back and stared absently at a line of hills that were too jagged and too far away to be recognizable. He looked up at the emptiness of a sky that by this time of day should have been filled with predators searching the baked yellow plains below for movement or carrion. “Makes no sense,” he said and moved on.
Hours passed, as did an unfamiliar hillside. His thoughts strayed and wandered, every so often he turned quickly, as if to surprise those who were trailing him at a discrete distance. He patted his abdomen and the alien form within. Clearly there was some purpose to all this? The saucer, the monster, the horrible probing and this, the invasion of his substance, and the sacrifice of his best friend?
Around, what he judged to be midnight, after stopping to rest so many times he gave up counting, and as parched and exhausted as he ever been in his life and under a half-moon that was so smooth it reminded Claude of a billiard ball, his ranch came into view. He was filled with a sense of satisfaction and dread. For an instant, he felt he was still living out a bad dream. Then, just to ground himself in the unreality of his reality, he considered lifting his shirt hoping that his belly, fat as it was, would be returned to its previous smooth, corpulent form. Instead, he considered where Rawley was right about now and what he was doing. Was he already down at Angel’s working on his fourth beer and joking with the crowd about how he’d pulled off a good one on his best friend?
The ranch house was now only a few hundred yards away. As he approached and massaged a crick that had developed in the center of his back, he decided that there was only one way to determine if all this was a dream in spite of the obvious. If the Briggs’ Western European Bride’s Registry was still in the drawer where he left it and opened to the page with a smiling, flirtatious Charisse on it then, well, he concluded there was some reason to hope. He marched up to the screen door which was as dilapidated as he remembered and pulled it open and, without searching the darkened rooms for telltale imperfections, went directly into the kitchen and yanked open the table drawer.
Staring back up at him was the vision of his dreams just as he remembered. He took out the magazine and plopped himself down in the chair as he had only yesterday before Rawley pulled up. God, she’s pretty, he thought. Smart and clever too, the biography assured, in compelling detail. He couldn’t wait to write her and hopefully, and he knew this made no sense; she might just still be available. After all, without hope, what had he left?