The TV behind the bar showed a shaky phone video, framing a flying saucer hanging in the sky. It looked like a refugee from a bad 50’s science fiction movie.
“Fifteen minutes ago, authorities evacuated the President,” said the announcer. I lost hope that the game would continue. Not that it bothered me, the Cards were down seven to three in the eighth.
An immediate buzz started. Someone joked about a movie, more recent, where another spaceship was over the White House. That one caused some damage, as I recall.
I didn’t worry though. If the aliens were really bad guys, they wouldn’t start by taking out some of the most reviled people on the planet. Probably figure out a way to use them, like they used the rest of us.
“They cut away from the game. You know this has gotta be important.”
That was Emerson, a drinking acquaintance, a man with a singular ability to state the obvious.
I took a sip of my drink in response, wishing the game would pick up. The Cardinals had come back from worse.
“So, what’s the angle? What’s going on, mister reporter?” Emerson had a smirk on his face. I thought about wiping it off, but I didn’t want to get thrown out of my home.
I glanced at the screen. My eye twitched. The saucer was coming down. “This is yet another attempt to scare us into being mindless followers. Like when the plague hit. They were trying to chip us all with trackers in the vaccine.”
“That way, when the insurrection happens, nobody will be able to hide. Face recognition and the trackers will identify if you’re on the right side.”
“Right.” Emerson’s eyes gleamed.
Somebody in the bar yelled, “Something’s happening!”
I studied my glass before taking another sip, having zero interest in the shit show being put on for the masses.
Suddenly, an electric thrill went through me. I looked around the bar, wondering what the hell? Everyone was staring at the TV. Not looking. Staring. Slack jawed and totally riveted. Even Emerson.
Cautiously, I peeked at the set. The saucer was on the White House lawn. An opening had appeared and a figure stood on the flat part. It looked tall and thin in its silver spacesuit and opaque bubble helmet. I immediately thought of it as he.
He held a rod in his right hand at head level. Sweeping the area. The motion stopped when it got to the camera. Damned if it didn’t look like he was pointing it right at me. I shuddered.
The spaceman swiveled away and disappeared. Gone, like someone did a bad cut. The television showed the ship for a few seconds before a talking head came on, offering some useless theory.
The spell broke. Conversation returned. Comments of what was that filled the bar.
“Hmm.” I took a final sip of my scotch and pushed the half-filled glass to the far side of the counter.
“Whoa! You thinking of going down there? Play mister reporter for that rag of yours?”
I stood up and dropped a twenty on the bar.
“Hey, look everyone, hotshot over here is going to get himself a Pulitzer! Woohoo!”
Nobody paid him attention.
But I couldn’t resist getting the last word. “Something this big, there’s bound to be a cover up.”
Emerson didn’t have an answer.
The traffic was crap. I had to park blocks away and hoof it. My first priority was to get pics of the sham before it got cleared away.
There was a gathering in front of the fence. The police, for once, were doing their job, not letting crowds have their way unlike other times. Yellow tape festooned the area, demarcating where people were allowed. I blended into the throng and made my way to the front. A couple of people had some rude remarks. My phone came out, just like everyone else. Snap. Snap. The saucer seemed to glow with a yellowish inner light.
Turning, I started talking to the people around me. A few had been here earlier and said they saw the spaceman. I talked to maybe half a dozen people. Questions came out, answers were recorded. Nobody mentioned the glow. Odd. Police noticed what I was doing and started to drift in my direction.
Satisfied I had enough material and nervous about the cops, I started back.
I reached my car and did a quick once over, even looked in the back seat. Can’t be too careful. Being on a list has taught me well. I had a story, a big one about mind control and lies. My eye lid fluttered. I had to hurry and file it.
I got in and fumbled with the belt. Safety first. That would have been ironic if I bought the farm on my way back with the biggest scoop of the century. Of all time.
Click, the seatbelt tab went into the holder and I grabbed the steering wheel.
Click! Another belt fastened.
I froze, my heart pounded so hard that I saw my shirt vibrating in time. I slowly turned to look at the passenger seat. A bulky silver clad figure with a smoked helmet sat in the chair with a belt across their chest. A glowing crystalline rod was in their hand.
I gripped the steering wheel so hard that the skin on my fingers and palms hurt. I would have jumped out of the car if I wasn’t being held in place. Clever. I cast my wide eyed gaze at them. Curiosity overcame the fear I felt when I noticed something. The alien seemed shorter and bulkier than I remembered.
“Do you want to go somewhere? Drive?” I managed to stammer out.
It was the oddest sounding word. I wasn’t sure if it was a command or a question. And, for all the weirdness, I thought it sounded recognizable.
I looked out the windows. Pedestrians were just passing us by, not noticing anything strange. I swallowed and checking the mirrors, pulled out into traffic, not thinking about the White House lawn, not thinking about how that glowing crystal was pointed at me.
There was a checkpoint ahead, so I turned on a side street.
“Hey buddy,” I said, now that I had regained some composure, “do you know where you want to go? President? Congress? Newspaper?” The last one was perhaps wishful thinking on my part. No reply.
I thought for a moment as I drove. “Home? ET go home?”
Again, with the strange intonation.
So I did what it said. I took it home.
I went back to the bar where I first heard of the saucer. My apartment is over it. It could use a bit of work, but it’s cheap enough for me to afford it. If it was good enough for me, it was good enough for our intergalactic visitor.
I thought trying to sneak in a silver-clad helmeted spaceman into my studio would be hard. Nobody said a word. Not one.
Upstairs, it just stood next to the closed door. I went to the fridge. Standing in front of it with the cool air hitting me, I realized that I didn’t have much to offer unless he wanted a beer. I decided to close it and turned to face him.
“You want something to eat? You want to sit down?” I pointed at my threadbare pull-out. I pantomimed sitting down and hoped that I didn’t look too ridiculous.
It walked over to the couch and stood in front of it, facing me. I thought he was going to sit down for a second.
Instead, the front of the spacesuit split open and got pulled off.
Did I call it ‘he’? Well, I was wrong. It was ‘she’. Definitely she.
My face burned as I turned away. “Oh hey, sorry about that. Next time, a little warning?”
A whirring sound was the response I got. Curiosity got the better of me. I peeked over my shoulder in time to see her passing that glowing rod of hers over her body. A dark blue polka-dotted dress with shoulder straps was left in the wake. Black flats completed the ensemble.
I was re-evaluating her connection to the powers that be.
Having finished, she lifted both hands to the side of the opaque bubble, leaving me wondering where her tool went. In one smooth motion, she lifted the headgear off.
A cascade of wavy red hair spilled out. My mouth fell open.
“laura” she mouthed.
I raged and saw red. Of all the people to choose from, why her? Confusion filled in the spaces left by hurt. My eye blinked rapidly.
I strode up to her, my face in hers. “What the hell is wrong with you?” Specks of spittle landed on her cheek. “Who thought this was a good idea?”
She reached up with that glass rod of hers and touched my forehead.
Everything became a long, purple tunnel with Laura’s smiling face at the end.
I woke on the couch. A drum beat out a ponderous rhythm behind my eyes.
Laura, or whoever the hell she was, sat in my kitchen chair, by my head. She was looking down at me.
Fear squeezed my insides. I sat up and wondered how I could get away. I noticed that I didn’t have my shoes on when my feet felt the worn carpet. Also, the sun cast long shadows through the kitchen window. I had been out for a while.
Not-Laura smiled when she saw me get up. “I am glad you are awake. I was afraid that I had hurt you.”
I took a good look at her. It was uncanny. She looked exactly how I remembered her. The cinnamon sprinkles, the brown eyes, even the little gap between her two front teeth that she hated and I found adorable. She even smelled like her.
“Who are you?”
Her sweet voice filled the ramshackle room. “So few of you have come. We wanted to see why. I was sent to help.”
I was very confused. “What? Help?”
“Can you show me some of your world? Maybe I can find out why.”
I thought for a moment. Considering all the weirdness today, I realized I could use a stiff drink. “Sure.”
I got my shoes on and we headed downstairs to the bar.
The bar was pretty empty. The regulars hadn’t quite made it in yet. Emerson was holding court at one end of the counter. I immediately went to the opposite one.
“Well, if it isn’t the big shot reporter? And it looks like you picked up some trim. Who’s your much better-looking friend?” he called out across the bar.
I pulled out a stool. Then I remembered and pulled out another stool, indicating to Not-Laura to sit on it before planting myself.
“Her name is Laura.” An obvious lie.
The bartender came over and poured me a scotch and looked expectantly at her.
“Ah, a rum and coke for her.” I ordered what she used to drink.
Emerson meandered over and plopped down next to me. “Laura? As in your ex?”
My eye acted up again. “She’s not my ‘ex’.”
“Really? Sure looks like how you described her. I don’t suppose there’s anything going on between you two, is there?”
I shook my head. I wasn’t following.
He leaned in, conspiratorially. “That’s good. Cause, if you’re not interested in her, well…”
“Emerson, you’re a pig.”
“Hey, help a buddy out!”
Not-Laura had taken a sip of her drink. She made a face, then pushed the glass away from her.
“Don’t. She’s not even human.”
Emerson just wouldn’t quit. “That’s harsh. Besides, with a body like hers, who cares about her personality?”
I turned to my companion. “This was a mistake. Come on.” In retrospect, I should have realized a stacked redhead would get more attention than someone in a spacesuit.
I got up and motioned her to follow. She was a couple of steps behind me as I headed to the door.
I heard a stool being pushed back and turned to look. Emerson must have thought a more direct approach was necessary. He ran up to her and grabbed her arm and spun her around.
“Hey, good looking, you don’t have to go with that.”
The crystal in her right hand flared and Emerson yelped and jumped back. He looked terrified. He hit a table, knocking it over and spilling the chairs around it.
Not-Laura turned and walked up to me, her eyes round and skipping all over the bar. She fixed her questioning gaze on me.
I held out my hand to her and she took it. “Let’s go.”
On the sidewalk, crowds of people swirled about, rushing home in time to make dinner. They kept looking down the street. I wondered what was going on, so I stopped and turned to see.
An MRAP was stuck in traffic at the intersection. A squad of uniformed men with rifles were jogging down the street toward us. I turned back around and walked briskly away from them with Not-Laura in tow.
We walked for a bit, losing ourselves in the crowd. I was just thankful we weren’t followed. We ended up at a park with a playground. I figured having her see kids at play might make a good impression.
We found a spot by the gym bars, a bench with a hedge behind it. The happy sounds of kids playing before dinner filled our ears. She seemed enthralled by what she saw. An adventurous one made it to the top of the cage and proclaimed his heroics to the rest. Other kids climbed after him.
Suddenly, he slipped and fell. I winced at the thought of him impacting the ground, but that didn’t happen. He floated an inch off the ground. Unclenching his teeth, he was lowered, and upon touching the ground, got up and promptly joined the others at play.
I looked next to me. The glowing crystal rod was once again in her hand.
Her eyes were darting all over the playground. “These are the immature forms of your species? In their play, they are more open.”
“I have no idea what you mean,” I said.
“Without preconceived notions, you can see things around you better.”
I understood. I had had my eyes opened years ago. I saw what was going on. I blinked slowly, looking around.
We watched the kids play for a few minutes. I was trying to figure out how to explain something to her. She must have seen something in my demeanor because she turned to me and focused on me.
“Look, I want to tell you something…” I started.
The wail of a far-off siren interrupted me. I listened. It was getting closer.
“Time to go.” I hauled her up and started walking, arm in arm with her.
As we cleared the far end of the park, I saw a black van pull up. Another squad car followed. Men started spilling out of the van. I snapped my head forward, pretending like I didn’t know anything. We casually sauntered past another vehicle racing toward the park.
I had an icy feeling in my gut. I looked down at Not-Laura. She was oblivious to what was going on. A happy, bright smile was on her face. She seemed so much like her, it broke my heart.
Distracted as I was, I ended up wandering to the one place I would not have gone. I stopped short when I realized where I was. A condemned apartment building with the lower windows boarded up lay a few steps beyond the sidewalk.
She looked at me with wide-eyed innocence. “Why did you stop?”
A whisper came out of me. “This is where it ended. Or started. Either way, I shouldn’t have come here.”
I had trouble, seeing out of one eye.
Her voice, so clear, so innocent, pierced me. “Do you want to go in?”
I wanted to say no. I thought no. But my heart spoke differently. I nodded my head.
Out came her transparent baton. It gave off a glow you could see by, in the twilight. She led me in, past the now open door.
I moved through a memory, climbing the stairs, ending up in front of our old apartment. A casual wave and we were inside.
The walls were covered in graffiti. Trash and empty bottles. A door being used as a ramp. The smell of urine in the air. Painful, bitter memories overlay everything.
I stared blankly at the mess. “This was a mistake.”
She looked solemnly at me. “All must eventually confront their past.”
The sight of Laura, painfully shuffling through the room, swam in my sight. “It could have been prevented.”
I stumbled down the short hallway to our old room. Laura, in bed those last few weeks, ridden with pain as it ate away her insides. I struggled to get her help. I worked every shift I could. But, the doctors and hospitals didn’t care. I was just one more faceless number who couldn’t afford treatment. All that time away from her, never to be regained. In the end, I couldn’t even afford medicines to ease her suffering. She died one evening, one much like this one.
That’s when I knew that it was a conspiracy, an enormous one, designed to keep the less fortunate in their place. It became my own cancer, gnawing away at my mind. I have been trying to get others to see the truth ever since.
I buried my face in my hands. Tears flowed freely.
A soft touch on my shoulder made me look up at her. Gentleness and caring filled her eyes. “I am sorry. I did not know.”
I nodded. “It’s fine. You were right. We all need to look where we’ve been.”
I found myself staring at the rod she held. “Say, where do you keep that thing?”
She held the rod toward me. “This? It is always near me.”
I took a good look at it. It was a transparent cylinder, maybe a foot long, a couple of inches wide. I could see tiny gold flecks in it, dancing in the light.
“You see the gold?”
I nodded. She seemed satisfied by my answer. “I came to help. So few of your people have made it to us. I came in a way that you could understand, so you could see me with your concepts.”
“The ship? Your space suit?”
“They are empty shells. We do not use those things to travel. If there is no concept for it, it remains unseen. Like a color, undescribed.”
My lack of understanding grew. It must have played out on my face in darkness broken by the golden light.
A broad smile spread across her face. She held out her hand. “Come, let me show you.”
I took her hand and walked down an impossible long hallway, dark except where touched by the light of her scepter. There were many closed doors that we passed, some big, some small. Some ostentatious beyond reason, and others quite plain. At the end of the hallway that wasn’t there stood one door. She gave a small grin and opened it.
A dark, violet sky with strange stars lay beyond. The light of a far-off ringed planet at the zenith flooded the lush landscape. The perfume of a thousand alien flowers made me lightheaded as I stepped onto a small clearing that gave to my step.
She pulled me into the center of the glade. I stared wide-eyed at the surroundings.
“This,” she gestured, “is all around you if only you can see. There are doors everywhere. ”
It was too much. I pulled her close, out of fear. She smiled at me. Her scent mixed with the scent of unnamed plants. I stared into Laura’s eyes. My heart pounded and I leaned in and kissed her. She didn’t pull away.
Instead, she led me down to the soft ground.
She whispered secrets in my ear as I made love to her.
A loud crash woke me. I lay on the hard, dirty floor, nude in the morning light. Laura was in my arms. Her eyes were wide, pupils a pinprick, her mouth an ‘O’. I wasn’t about to let anyone take her away again.
“Stay here.” I got up and moved to the door as she sat up.
A group of armed and armored thugs were in the living room at the end of hallway. One of them shouted and a whole team started coming toward me, weapons at ready.
“Freeze!” they yelled.
I lifted my arms. “Hey, I think there’s been a mistake here.” I took a couple of steps toward them.
“I said freeze!”
They readied their weapons.
I sensed movement behind me. Laura had come out of the bedroom, cylinder in hand.
The loud retort of gunfire startled me. I immediate flung myself in her direction as I realized who the target was, to shield her.
But, it was too late. She lay in a heap against the door jamb.
I got down on the floor and cradled her in my lap, holding her head in my arms. “Laura, Laura…”
I could see her lips moving, so I bent forward to hear her words.
“use it. I’ll wait.”
She let out a long, slow breath and was still. Warmth puddled on my lap. Salty tears mixed with her spreading blood.
I offered no resistance. I had none. I was still wrenched to the ground and roughly cuffed. They pulled me up and marched me down to an awaiting black, unmarked van where they tossed me in, naked to the world. A ride later to some place that probably didn’t officially exist, and I marched down a gray, concrete block hallway with doors on either side. They hosed me off and gave me an orange jumpsuit.
Then, the questioning began. I didn’t say a word. I was a sphinx. Easy to do when you can’t hear them above your own thoughts.
At one point, I broke down and started crying again. I wondered what they were asking? It didn’t matter. They stopped. No more questions about the visitor and their weapon for now.
They put a jacket with overlong sleeves on me. I struggled a bit; I needed my hands free. They said it was for my own protection as I was led into a padded cell.
How very kind.
So, I sit here, by myself, trying to worry my way out of my restraint.
I can see it. Laura’s final gift to me, her magic wand. It is right there. Next to the door, the one door I’ve been looking for all this time. I can’t believe I missed it. Just as soon as I’m free.
Laura, I’m coming.