Good Neighbors

“Will I be issued a human chassis?” Djix pulsed.

“Your configuration will be humanoid, but clearly mark you as alien. For this mission to succeed, humans must see you as an alien. Otherwise, they will dismiss you as a hoax.”

“Alien? Isn’t this alien enough?” Djix exuded and waved a scale-lined appendage in the ammonia brine.

“Too alien,” Kalig pulsed. “Psyops was very clear on this. To get humans to cooperate, they must see us as advanced versions of themselves. In addition to studying humans, our abduction and probing missions have prepared them to accept this design.”

Kalig extended a pseudopod, inflating the end to form a bulb with two prominent blisters mounted atop a stick-limbed torso. “These blister sensors respond to electromagnetic radiation in the 450-800 terahertz range.”

“Humans will accept that?” Djix creased and pulled in like a folding accordion.

“Our research indicates very positive reactions from our captives. An older couple we examined even invited our scientists down for a Texas-style barbeque.”

“Barbeque?”

Searching for a sensitive way to put it, Kalig eventually rattled, “Humans consume organic materials.” When Djix’s folds tightened, Kalig added the rest. “Their bodies are composed of loosely adhering bags of dihydrogen monoxide solutions.”

Djix pursed a scaly dimple. “I know, I know, I have to go. You’re going to tell me I was specially selected … the only one you trust to handle this sensitive mission … my special skills—”

“I won’t kid you, Djix,” Kalig interrupted. “You are expendable: the only one we could spare.” Djix’s receptors narrowed. “Despite their primitiveness, humans are extremely dangerous,” Kalig continued. “If you are to survive, you must appear not only intelligent but also frail and childlike. Humans must respect you but not fear you, especially since your message will not be welcome.”

Seeing Djix study the alien chassis, Kalig paused a beat. “After some discussion, we decided it best not to give you any reproductive organs—”

“Reproductive organs? They don’t let the robots … I mean they still … with their bodies … together—”

“Human lore abounds with stories of gods, aliens, and mythical beasts seducing, impregnating, or abducting their women. We don’t want to play into that narrative.”

Djix’s scales shuddered then contracted in resignation. “Okay. Brief me on my mission.”

Green Bank Telescope

“You know the electromagnetic interference, the jamming that’s blocked our communication and given everyone such a core-ache.”

“The deviant pulsar emissions?”

“That’s from humans trying to make contact. They’ve been spraying that e-mag pollution all across the galaxy, trashing every frequency. Begging us to help them, to come and give their life meaning. They call it their search for extraterrestrials, and they feel very smug about it.”

“Absurd,” Djix pulsed.

“Nevertheless, they must be stopped.” Kalig paused to let Djix recalibrate. “Tell them we’ve put up with their neediness and caterwauling long enough. No one wants to contact or encourage them, and no one wants them in the galactic neighborhood. We tried to ignore them, but they just go on and on and on. The community finally got together and drew straws. We drew the short straw.”

“You mean, I drew the short straw,” Djix pulsed.

“Tell them we’re not going to solve their problems. We will not make them get along with each other or tell them how to cure cancer. If we solve their problems, they won’t get off their hind-joint sockets. The answers to all their problems are in front of them. They just need to purge their organic memory bins, stop conjuring fabulous fears, and stop worrying about who gets credit or has more of something.”

Djix oscillated so hard it almost rocked over. “I miss the ones before them, the dinosaurs.”

“A worthy species. Alas, asteroids do happen. You know, Djix, before dying out, the last thing the dinosaurs did was to restore the planet to its original condition. They dropped all their trash and technical devices into volcanoes and leveled every city. They wanted the species that came after them to have a fresh start. I’m glad they aren’t around to see this crazy bunch.”

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The True Story of Big Ed’s Car Wash

FOX NEWS, Jodie Winsome: “Here we are, on the Mall in Washington D.C. on Independence Day. It is a perfect day, too, sunny and clear, with a slight breeze, and only eighty-five degrees. Hey Thomas? Where are you Thomas?“

Thomas Greyling looked up into the camera and smiled then shouted over the raucous crowd. “I’m beside the Reflecting Pool, Jodie, between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. Picnickers showed up early with coolers and blankets; some camped out last night to save the best spots. Spaces are filling fast. We all know—this is the place to watch fireworks.”

Jodie: “I hear music warming up. The rock group, Crowd Control, is supposed to be here and country singer, Molly Doorham.”

Thomas: “They’re setting up between here and the Capitol. Fans are milling, children playing, parents shouting. Everyone’s really excited. I think they’re calling for half a million on the Mall and another million in surrounding areas, along GW Parkway and in West Potomac Park.”

 

“Sweetie, you hear the size of that crowd?” I shouted pointing to the portable TV propped on the orange crate. Carole and I watched the festivities from lawn chairs in the parking lot of Big Ed’s Car Wash. “And those millions of fans have cameras, and there’s full media coverage. We might never have to pay for another TV ad.”

Carole stood and started pacing, clipboard in hand. Dru rocked nervously from his seat on the curb. Carole pointed to her checklist. “The media team should be here setting up. It’s almost noon. Ahh, finally … Here they come. Dru, get ready.”

 

FOX NEWS, Thomas Greyling: “Was that a sonic boom? That’s the loudest—Those Air Force or Navy jets?” He pointed. “No, wait. Oh my God, Oh my God, OH MY GOD … LOOK.”

Cameras swung to the air above the Capitol building, to a white light that bleached the blue from the cloudless sky. The sound rose in pitch to a deafening scream then dropped low and began a slow pulse, rmmm, rmmm, rmmm. Eyes shot up. Guitars swung on their slings. Hot dogs, footballs, Frisbees and plastic beverage bottles bounced on the turf.

shining-flying-saucer-ufoIt was right out of Day the Earth Stood Still, and I loved it. A brilliant disk dropped from the white glow to descend on the Capitol. Gliding slowly down the front steps, it followed the Mall, straight and low, then headed down the center of the crowd-lined Reflecting Pool. Cameras large and small fixed on the disk. Eyes glued to what everyone hoped—or feared.

We watched the entire scene from Big Ed’s, and I swear my eyes teared. It was better than I’d expected. “Sooo good. Carole, that sound clip is excellent.” I shot my right hand into the air and called, “Dru!” He jumped from the curb and slapped it high. We laughed and danced pointing at the precariously perched television.

FOX NEWS, Thomas Greyling: “What are we seeing? I can’t believe it. The saucer, it’s—it’s over the memorial, the uh, Lincoln Memorial. Now it’s crossing the Potomac, ahh … the Pentagon, it’s heading toward the Pentagon.”

Jodie Winsome: “Sally? What are you seeing at the Pentagon?”

Sally Campbell: “Jodie? … Yes, sorry. No one here is moving or talking. What does it mean?”

“Can you tell us what’s happening, Sally?”

“The saucer, I-I don’t know what else to call it, it hovered over the Pentagon—a hundred feet up. Stayed ten maybe fifteen seconds. Now it’s over the south parking lot and moving south toward 395. It seems to be following the highway. I’m going with the mobile unit. We’ll try to keep it in sight—leaving the parking lot right now. Now it’s left of the freeway, turning east toward Van Dorn.”

I shifted my lawn chair to face our camera crew. They were glued to the TV set. “Hey, guys, let’s get going. When … I mean, if that thing comes this way, we … ahh, we might get lucky. Hey, Ms., Ms. … Kerry Kline,” I read the announcer’s name from her contract. “It’s coming this way. It’d be a good time to get ready!”

Channel Five’s mobile camera unit tracked the saucer cruising past Landmark Mall and the Duke Street exit, still following Van Dorn. Just before reaching the stoplight at Edsall Road, the saucer dropped almost to eye-level and slid left. Crossing the grassy median, it entered Big Ed’s parking lot and aligned with the central bay.

Dru stepped nonchalantly to the front of the car wash and gestured for a low and slow approach. He looked like a flight line director guiding a plane to land on an aircraft carrier.

“You fellows catching this, right?” Twisting around, I saw my two cameramen glued to their cameras, faces glistening, hands shaking.

The saucer engaged the tractor ramp and slipped into the car wash. Eighty-three seconds later, it passed out through the service bay, glowing noticeably brighter thanks to Dru’s instruction. The dramatic pulse sound, subdued during the wash, grew deafening as the saucer rose eighteen feet. It rocked in the summer breeze then shot straight up and out of sight. Our camera crew, aglow with sweat, followed its flight.

When the camera view returned to the parking lot and Kerry Kline, she broke from the script with an impromptu, “So another satisfied customer came a long way for a great car wash, a Big Ed’s Car Wash.” She ended with a wink at the camera. Her spontaneity would cost her $60,000 in legal fees.

I hugged Carole. “I guess we kinda upstaged the band and fireworks.” She beamed a smile and buried her face in my chest. I felt like a hero and had visions of all our debts flitting off like butterflies. Dru celebrated our marketing coup by pogoing in place. Fortunately, our announcer and camera crew were too stunned to notice our joyous celebration.

Kerry Kline dropped to her knees, hands pressed to her face. “Yes! Yes! Thank you. My big break.” She then stood, smoothed her dress, patted her hair, and checked her makeup.

Our cameramen replayed the sequence, then again, then again. “There, see, we got it! Oh, look at that!”

Crowds streamed in from the apartments across Van Dorn and the Giant Food parking lot across Edsall. A convoy of trucks, emergency vehicles, police and military, campers, and cars filled with screaming tourists skidded down Van Dorn, ignoring the lanes. Some cut the curb and bounced into our lot. Vehicles and pedestrians converged from all sides.

“What? Who? How? Did you?” Microphones swung and thrust into everyone’s faces. Reporters, police, and onlookers blocked the crossroad, backing traffic as far as we could see. It continued until early the next morning.

CNN LATE NIGHT, Barbara Bleakly: “First Contact?” She shook her head and exaggerated a swallow. “Feared by doomsayers, prophesied by religious cults, discussed by scientists. Has it really happened? At an obscure car wash in Northern Virginia?” She narrowed her sculpted eyebrows and glared at the camera. “Questions remain but, strange as it seems, the first aliens may have come to Earth – for a car wash?” Her tone rose sharply on her last line.

 

Dru had shown up on our doorstep six months earlier—an interstellar traveler in need of star-side assistance. To deter suspicion, he had taken the persona of a destitute youth from Appalachia. To pay for materials to repair his starship, he proposed building a car wash—his field of expertise. Carole and I needed to make the arrangements, pay upfront costs, and provide cover for the repair process. Once Dru was on his way, we could keep the business. Until he explained the wash process, I was dubious—the cost would consume our entire retirement fund and exhaust all our credit.

‘Washing’ to interstellar standards was done with atomic-level precision. Extraneous materials such as dirt and rust were removed and reprocessed then used to replace materials lost: paint, plastic, metal, wear to valves, pistons, belts, gaskets, tires, everything. Cars came out shiny and showroom new. When we tested the process on our old Honda Accord, the gas mileage improved thirty percent over what it was new.

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Suddenly everyone wanted a forty-dollar car wash at Big Ed’s—the price we needed to charge to cover costs and to repair Dru’s starship. Cars lined up. Days ran into nights ran into days. Reporters refused to believe our tale of wide-eyed innocence and made life difficult.

“Ms. Ed—?”

“It’s Carole, please, Big Ed is just the name of the car wash.”

“Carole then, why do you think the aliens chose to visit Big Ed’s Car Wash?”

“Good advertising?” she deadpanned. “We spent a lot on TV ads.”

“Ed, how do you feel about the aliens choosing to visit your establishment?”

“Name’s Keith. I don’t know. We sure can use the business, but they left without paying. I figure they owe us forty dollars.”

“I understand you and your wife were completely unaware—but when did you first find out about the alien visit? Have you been visited before? No? How many times? What do they look like? How advanced are they?”

And so it went. They grilled our announcer and camera crew. Poor Kerry Kline told the truth and believed we had too. Thanks to her improvised pitch, she drew the severest interrogation.

Ironically, Dru—the only human-pronounceable syllable in his name—got the least attention and almost no questions. His Appalachian guise and I-just-workin’-at-the-car-wash routine became our little joke. His vacant smile and slow drawl put the reporters to sleep.

Despite the media harassment and insistence on an investigation, the money kept flowing. Soon we had enough for materials for starship repairs. We shut the car wash down for the weekend to give Dru the time and privacy to fabricate the components. Then late that Sunday night, we hugged, wished each other well, and tearfully parted company. Dru said he’d stop by when he was in this system and would put in a good word for us. I didn’t ask with whom. Everyone was happy. I thought our problems were over.

 

After Labor Day, Channel Nine ran an exposé on Big Ed’s Car Wash using mic’d up actors posing as customers.

“Ed, my car’s beautiful. Runs great. All the dings and paint cleaned up. Do I owe you extra for the radio? Why’d you fix my wife’s cell phone? She wanted an updated one. I should get a deduction.”

“Stanley Steamer parts? Those were rare eighty years ago. I keep a machinist on call. But what’d you do with the originals? They’re antiques. I want ’em back.”

“Those pots in the trunk were headed to Good Will. Look how they shine. And the clothes stitched, cleaned, pressed and re-dyed. They’re out of fashion, but now my husband won’t let me get anything new.

WASHINGTON POST, Page A-1: “Saucer Washer, Big Ed, Sued for Illegal Repairs. Local Congressman Jim Mertano to investigate parts counterfeiting, patent infringement, smuggling, and possible labor violations—” The Post article failed to mention Mertano’s ties to the mechanic’s union.

Minus the money we gave Dru, we were again deep in debt. We hired attorney Marsha Elliot of Elliot and Elliot to protect our assets. I assured her nothing untoward was going on: checking serial numbers would show that all the parts were repaired originals, not replacements.

ABC NEWS, Karen Storm: “Questions continue over Big Ed’s Miracle Car Wash. What kind of miracle do we have here? I asked EPA investigator Charles Hale. Mr. Hale?”

“Karen, Big Ed’s has yet to file with the EPA on their processes. We’ve taken air and water samples. Until the report comes back from our lab, we need to evacuate those apartments,” he gestured, “there across Van Dorn Street.”

NATIONAL ENQUIRER: “Muscular Dystrophy Cured? Mother testifies, ‘We left Butch in the car, accidentally, of course. I was afraid he’d be dead. We were planning to sue, but look at him! He’s all cured.’” Before-and-after pictures showed a sickly child then a tearful mother hugging a handsome youth in perfect condition. “’It’s a real miracle, God bless you, Big Ed!’”

FOX AM NEWS, Roger Durban: “Crowds have been gathering at Big Ed’s since midnight. Everyone is carrying either a candle or a pitchfork. Chief John Adams is here from the Alexandria Police Department to keep order. Chief?”

“I’ve never seen anything like this, Roger. Fear, anger, hope. It’s scary, and it’s getting out of hand. I called Franconia Station for backup.”

“Thanks, Chief Adams … Oh, what is this?” Sirens and shouting drowned out Durban’s broadcast. Half a dozen helicopters WHOP, WHOP, WHOPPED over the scene. Spotlights swept the parking lot. Rappelling lines dropped followed by troops in SWAT gear. A column of black security vans, bounded across the grass, passing backed up traffic. Police directed the crowd to clear the path.

Roger Durban waved for the camera to scan the scene: a sea of placards and hopefuls, “The Truth is Out There,” “Only Jesus Saves,” “Stop Global Warming.” Adults milled about in costumes: Star Fleet uniforms, Vulcan ears, Hobbit feet, vampire fangs, longhaired proselytizers. Mothers hugged emaciated children. Young and old slumped on crutches and in wheelchairs. Police took Carole and me into custody while hazmat-attired workers streamed past us to dismantle the car wash.

When we got home that evening, we found crowds gathered to pray or protest. A couple windows were broken on the house. Police drove the people away, but they kept returning at all hours.

Government lawsuits began a few days later. When Big Ed’s ‘washing’ technology wouldn’t work at a secure government facility, officials claimed we’d sabotaged it. Another suit claimed the entire episode was an elaborate hoax and all our customers paid shills. A few of them even took money from news networks to confess. After that our attorney stopped answering our phone calls.

 

Late that October, when we were getting up to walk the dog, a knock came at the door. It was 4:45 A.M. I swallowed hard and looked at Carole. Knock, knock, knock, it came again.

She turned on the porch light and reached to open the door. I held up my hand. “No, let me this time.” The cool, pre-dawn breeze floated in over a smallish Indian woman standing in our doorway. She wore a plum and red sari with one panel draped over her arm.

“My pardon, Mr. Keith?” The woman looked up with large dark-highlighted eyes. “I am Lishktrkdnlyschandra. I hope my appearance is appropriate to this planet.” Lifting folded hands before her lowered face, she bowed politely. “Our dear friend, you call him Dru, he spoke well of you. He is sorry he cannot come. He said you might be in need of our assistance. We cannot let you suffer on our behalf. Sanctuary lists you, your kind wife also, and your home as refuge for travelers.”

It took me a moment to register the woman’s message. “Excuse me one second.” I raised a finger and called back into the house. “Carole, we have a visitor.” Returning to the young woman, I said, “Please come in. May I call you Chandra?”

The Beast of Lander Knoll

All us kids knew about the beast, but we never talked about it, not for long and then only in whispers. It was as though we thought it might hear us and get angry, kinda like my second-grade teacher Miss Jaspers, only worse. The beast might come to get us.

Then came the Scout Jamboree in October, where everyone was suppos’ to tell a scary story ‘round the campfire.

Fridge got booed when he said his scariest story was about finding an empty ice cream carton in the freezer. Like some ghost had snuck in late at night and eaten it all. Fibber, who was older than the rest of us and almost eleven, said the ghost was prob’ly Fridge’s fat sister, and all the scouts laughed.

Cowboy told the story about finding some animal’s missing foot in the forest, and the animal had really long teeth that dripped drool, and it couldn’t rest ‘til it came and got its foot back. I heard it before, but Cowboy told it real good.

I told one my grandpa told me about a crazy old man that lived on an island who told such great stories, boys ‘ed come to hear ‘em. The boys kept disappearing, but they never figured out it ‘as the old man what did it. When the old man’s voice got real soft, boys ‘ed lean in cause they wanted to hear. Then the old man, he stabbed ‘em with his cane that was really a spit for roasting wild bears and boars and such, then the kids got roasted, too, and the old man ate ‘em.

At the end, I whispered so they had to lean in, then shouted and held my hiking stick up like it was a spit. All the boys’ eyes were big as owls’. Kip fell off a log. “True story,” I insisted. “Really, it’s true.” I felt all warm after telling that story, like maybe I’d win a prize or somethin’.

Fibber frowned at me hard. He pressed his lips tight, nodded, and ran a finger under his nose. Then he broke our unspoken rule: he told about the Beast of Lander Knoll. We all got sudden quiet. As he spoke, I felt a chill on my neck, like monster breath. I checked behind me at the forest of shadows shifting in the campfire light. Cowboy and Fridge looked scared, too.

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Fibber said it was Indian legend from long before white men walked this land that the beast lived in a tree on Lander Knoll. The Indians told the pioneers not to cut the tree down, but they didn’t listen. They made a shed out of the wood and put it right where the tree was before. Nobody knew what the beast looked like, ‘cause no one ever lived that had seen it. People just heard that someone was gone, and no one ever spoke their name again. No one ever asked neither—cause they were all scared the beast might hear ‘em.

Far as Fibber knew—which was a lot more than the rest of us scouts knew, cause we kept lookin’ at each other and back to the woods—the monster never left the shed. Just kept pullin’ people inside, mostly kids. Maybe it didn’t live there at all and only came at night for its dinner, like steppin’ out of some gate to hell or somethin’.

 

After the Jamboree, kids all started talkin’ about the beast and the shed on Lander Knoll. Zeke the groundskeeper kept tractors, tools, nails, an’ stuff in it, so maybe the beast only came at night like Fibber’d said. Zeke used to go to Growler High School in town and played football. Last year when he hurt his knee, he decided he’d had enough school and took the groundskeeper job. Though big as my dad, Zeke acted more like a kid, and he joked with us, too.

When we asked him about the beast, Zeke gave us a funny smile and said it was true, all of it. “Don’t never go up there late, not after sundown, no matter what you hear. Bad things happen when boys come to the shed at night. ‘Cause if you do an’ the beast catches you, you know what it means?” He shook his head and grimaced. “It means I got a mess to clean up.” He laughed then said that’s why he keeps a big lock on the shed—to keep the beast in and small boys out.

 

That evening, Sally came over while my mom went to the wives’ club meeting. Sally was starting high school and trying out for cheerleader, so she still had all her cheerleader clothes on: a white sweater with a big green ‘G’ on the front, a green-and-gray pleated skirt, and saddle shoes, white on the toe and heel with black running up across the laces.

We ate supper on the bare, wooden, kitchen table: my sister in her highchair, me on a tube-metal chair with a red plastic seat. I watched Sally open a can of SpaghettiOs and boil two hot dogs. Her short blond hair bounced when she walked, and her skirt pleats shifted and pulled along her bottom. When she turned and caught me ogling, I got embarrassed. So I kept my eyes on her black and white shoes while she brought us our SpaghettiOs.

Later Sally practiced cheerleading in our living room. My sister and me sat on the sofa. Every step, hop, kick, and turn came with a shout. When she shouted for us to give her a ‘G’ or ‘O’ we’d shout the letter back. Every cheer ended with a hop and a kick and a big smile, and we cheered and clapped for her.

When I asked Sally if she knew about the monster, she looked a little scared. I showed her out my bedroom window how close we were to the shed, the closest house in the development, about as far as throwing a baseball from second base to home plate. Sometimes at night I heard strange sounds, something knocking inside the shed, and saw things moving, ‘specially after sundown.

Fibber said that’s when the beast came. It was hungry and needed to satisfy a terrible hunger, and it was good Zeke kept the shed locked. I didn’t tell Sally that I’d seen the door open: like last night and once last week.

“The beast won’t come for you,” Sally said. “It won’t leave the shed, so you mustn’t worry. Have you told anyone else about this?” No, I said, she was the only one, ‘cause I knew she wouldn’t laugh. Mom and dad were too busy to listen.

 

Next morning I decided to talk to Fibber and the boys. “Why ‘nt you go up an’ see for yourself?” Fibber sneered. “Just maybe you’ll learn somethin’.”

“And maybe you’ll die a terrible, bloody death,” Cowboy chimed in, nodding.

I looked Fibber in the eye. I wondered if I backed down, if Cowboy and the rest would still talk with me or laugh.

Then Fibber raised the stakes. “Good thing Zeke keeps the shed door locked to keep little kids like you out,” he said. “In a full moon that might not matter much—‘cause the beast is strongest then and it could break the lock.”

I was tired of being the little kid in the scout pack and tired of being the scaredy-cat, even if no one said that out loud. No one ever went up to Lander Knoll at night, not in a full moon. But I had to.

 

My shadow in the silvery moonlight reached out in front of me. Beyond it, the weather-worn shed glowed a soft gray. As I climbed the bare slope, a hundred reasons rushed through my head for not going up there. No one would blame me. Later would be a better time. I could wait for Cowboy and the others but knew they were more scared than me.

The chilly fall air smelled dry and dusty. A shiver ran through me. I swallowed and tried to keep my knees from shaking. My sweaty, yellow, scout t-shirt stuck to my thin body, and my wet belt scraped at my waist.Ignoring all the good reasons to not go, I swallowed again and took another step, then another.

Something stirred in the long dry grass then scurried quickly away. A single faraway bird gave a lonely twitter. I stopped to listen and breath then continued. Setting each foot down as quietly as possible, I worked around to the locked shed door.

Something clattered inside then scraped as it dragged or got pushed. I heard a long moan and a groan then a slam as the shed door kicked open, letting out the stink of fertilizer and gasoline. Inside the shed, on the floor beside a riding mower, a dark lump rose and fell as it breathed, rocking slowly like a rowboat alongside a pier and gaining momentum. The rocking became violent as I watched. I shook all over and wanted to run, but my feet were frozen to the ground.

A high-pitched cry suddenly split the air, and a human foot kicked out from the lump. It wore a saddle shoe, white heel and toe with black across the laces. I jumped back and my eyes caught a flash of white in the moonlight, a white sweater with a ‘G’ hung on a leaf rake handle. I gave a shout and the lump stopped rocking. A face emerged, a smiling face, then an arm grabbed and pulled the shed door shut.

“Who was it, Zeke,” said a familiar voice.

“Just some kid,” Zeke said.

I stumbled down the hill fast as my wobbling legs could go, certain the beast was right behind me. Soon as I got to my house, I ran inside, slammed the door, and leaned hard against it.

My mom yelled at me for slamming the door, and I said I was sorry. While catching my breath, I tried to remember everything what happened, as many details as possible, so I could tell it at the next campfire.

When I got to the part about the saddle shoe and the white sweater with a ‘G’ and the lump with the face and arm, I was stumped. “Why were Zeke and Sally in there?” As I heard my own words, the reason became suddenly clear.

 

Sally never came to the house again, and I never let on when I saw Zeke. I never told the story at the campfire, and not to Fibber, Cowboy, or the other scouts. And they never asked.

Pardon Me!

They reopened Jacamar Prison just for Mickey Gallop. That meant old-style isolation, a six-by-eight-foot concrete closet, no windows, a bolted steal door with a food slot, no visitors, no links to the outside, and twenty-minutes-a-day fresh air in a dog-run that had been an elevator shaft.

After the media row and his harrowing trial for kidnapping, Mickey felt lucky he hadn’t gotten the death penalty. He knew Lisa Tooley was a famous benefactress, though never seen in public, but he had no idea how reliant people had become on her. Most of the evidence that could have helped Mickey’s case was barred, a violation of Lisa’s privacy, and treated like sacred writ. One might believe he had driven spikes into a holy saint.

solitary-confinementThat was the problem—Mickey Gallop knew Lisa Tooley was no saint. He also knew that if they discovered the full extent of his crime, his hundred-and-forty-year sentence would have been longer.

His pardon came as a surprise—in just thirty days.

 

By his own reckoning, Mickey Gallop was not a bad man, merely a hapless one who balanced his deficits with opportunistic sneak-thievery. Whatever he found unattended was his: a laptop, a bicycle in a rack, a coat on a hook, a shopping bag left on a bench. These were his small daily blessings. The unattended refrigerator truck looked like too big of a blessing. Mickey would have questioned it himself if it hadn’t been so easy.

It was midday on Friday, and weekend traffic was heavy. Mickey was walking on Telegraph Road when he saw the bumper-to-bumper snarl just before the exit at Woodward . It was ninety-six degrees. The sun beat down relentless in a cloudless sky. Drivers got out to strut their frustration and cool their backsides. A red-haired babe stood on the seat of her red Mercedes convertible. Her sweat-clung blouse revealed her fine figure and disregard for undergarments. She raised her arms high over her head to catch the breeze. More drivers stepped from their cars.

Traffic was clearing on the inner lane. When Mickey saw the driver of the reefer leave the truck with the door open and motor running, he didn’t need an invitation.

Mickey steered the truck left into the open lane and accelerated, leaving the red Mercedes gawkers far behind. He thought he had gotten away clean but later realized too many cameras on the red-haired babe had caught him fleeing the scene. He left Telegraph and took 45 north out of town. Twenty-eight miles later, he pulled into his cousin Gaston’s workshop garage.

Mickey had no trouble getting into the back of the truck, but the refrigerated cargo was useless—a brain. As part of rehab he’d watched a forensic surgeon take one out of the head of some dead, homeless guy. To Mickey human brains weren’t much different from pig brains.

He thought it would be a bad idea to try to sell the brain back to the police or to a medical school. He might be able to hock the pumps, gauges, water tank, and computer hardware. The reefer unit on the truck might be worth something.

He disconnected all the tubes and wires, threw the brain into the dumpster in the alley, and hauled the technical equipment to the workbench. Most of it looked new and high end, which meant it could probably be traced. Mickey began stripping and filing off any tags or plates that would show the stuff was stolen.

The hot news on TV was the Lisa Tooley kidnapping. Mickey watched and listened while he worked but never made the connection. Her foundation wanted her back and was offering big bucks as a ransom or reward, no questions asked. Again, Mickey missed it.

When they showed the refrigerated truck leaving the scene on Telegraph Road, he paid closer attention. Lisa Tooley was not in good health the reporter said, and she required immediate specialized care. There was a catch: If any information were leaked on Tooley’s condition, no reward would be given.

Mickey ran to the dumpster and found the trash scattered. Two dogs faced one another growling. Lisa Tooley’s brain, a broken syringe, and a crushed diet soda can laid between them. Mickey shouted and threw a broken pickle jar. The Schnauzer ran. The Spitz-Poodle clawed its way over a chain-link fence.

Mickey brushed watermelon seeds and coffee grounds off the brain then tried to hook it back up to the equipment. He restarted the refrigeration unit, pumps, and monitors—got zero on the gauges and a flat line. No reward for numero uno, he thought.

Near panic, he looked for some release. His girlfriend Inez was no longer young and no one’s idea of a catch, but Mickey knew not to tell her that. Robots are sensitive. He’d gotten her second hand, and she wasn’t top-of-the-line, but she was a real Dollbaby 2727. Inez had scratches and dents and had lost some hair, but she said and did all the right things in all the right ways. Mickey loved her—in his own way. He’d spent a lot of time training her, too, so Inez knew exactly when to submit and cooperate or pout, scold, and push back, whatever it took to get him excited.

In the throes of ecstasy, Mickey got an idea. He’d hate parting with Inez, but that reefer truck was all over the news. Someone must have seen him drive it into the garage.

After instructing Inez to respond only to the name Lisa Tooley, he kissed her one last time and guided her into a corner of the garage. He removed Inez’s operating and memory chips then connected them to the computer and to wires from Lisa Tooley’s brain. His installation was clumsy guesswork, but it only had to work for a short time—long enough for him to get the money and skip town.

Who would have thought the executive directors of the Lisa Tooley Foundation were all a bunch of lying crooks? Once they had their genius benefactor back, they threw the book at Mickey Gallop. Then they buried him and his big secret … revelation of which, Mickey figured out during the trial, would have brought down the stock market and caused a world depression.

But thirty days is a long time for a Dollbaby 2727 to go without her ‘daddy’, and Mickey had neglected to reset Inez’s timer.

 

The warden, the governor, a boatload of high muckety-mucks met Mickey with their hats in their hands. So sorry … Of course, the reward … travesty of justice … fine man like yourself. Lisa Tooley said she needed her Mickey baby—and a lot of other things the foundation execs weren’t comfortable repeating. Would Mickey meet with her, tell her what she needed to hear? Of course, he shrugged.

Mickey decided to let it roll and play this for all it was worth. They needed him to show up every thirty days to “take care of Lisa.” How Inez pulled it off, he had no idea.

 

Other stories about Dollbaby 2727: Artificial Love and Dollbaby 2727

Opening Soon

Kaylee felt a great cold emptiness after their breakup, like a railroad spike driven down through her heart then pulled out. She’d been with Tim for three years. Three years. He had told her that morning at Holly’s Café: He and Stasi were getting married in October.

After delivering his news, Tim dashed off without finishing his coffee, late to meet Stasi and make arrangements with Father Antonio at St. Mary’s. Quaking as she left Holly’s Café alone, Kaylee found the nearest bench along the street.

A taxi pulled to the curb, and a young woman in a white tennis outfit jumped out. A tall, fit man in red running togs and a white Adidas shirt caught her up and embraced her. After remarking how good their timing was, they passed Kaylee and went into Holly’s. Three pre-teen girls walked past, laughing, carrying books and a jump rope, and saying, “My momma, she … My teacher said …”

Kaylee heard none of it. Staring blankly, she barely noticed when the rain began to fall, gently then heavier. Dark spots widened on the pavement to join others, forming hopping splotches that ran to the drain. Kaylee rushed for home, grateful for the drops that cooled her tear-streaked cheeks.

Then the sky burst. Wind-blown rain lifted Kaylee’s dress and soaked her legs. People covered their heads with packages and backpacks as they ran, and cars dancing with rain sent waves up from fast filling puddles. Ducking onto a walking street, Kaylee leaned against the yellow brick on the lee side.

The rain picked up and wind shifted. Kaylee took cover under an old theater marquee and wondered how long she would have to wait.

A wide banner spanned the theater’s glass double-doors, red letters on white, THEATER printed diagonally on one door, CLOSED on the other. Inside the lobby was dark. Cupping her eyes against the glass, Kaylee saw an empty counter, an upset refuse bin, and playbills of past shows in framed, glass cases.

She pulled the handle and the door opened. The lobby smelled like a moldy, old theater complete with worn red carpets. Tan, threadbare paths leading to the auditorium arced around both sides of the service counter. Kaylee pushed through one of the doors and entered.

The auditorium was cool, dark, and dank, with a steady sound of dripping water. In the faint light from exit door markers and the ends of the rows, Kaylee saw the aisle sloping down in front of her and the outlines of seats—a quiet place to think. She took a seat in the fourth row, three seats in. As her eyes adjusted, she detected scattered trash and a broken seat with torn upholstery in her row. The dim-lit stage had no curtains and was bare except for a card table near center stage, three folding chairs, and a shaded floor lamp.

Something scurried at the foot of the stage. “Maybe it’s Tim,” Kaylee snorted, but she knew she couldn’t dismiss him that easily. She felt too empty to be flippant. He’d been so cheerful that morning, telling her his big news, seemingly unconcerned about her feelings. Was it really that easy for him? She would never feel his hands again or his kisses. When she reached over at night or looked across the table, he wouldn’t be there. No more running in the surf together or flying kites. Would she hear his laugh again, feel the same thrill, possibly in harmony with another laugh? Would she laugh again—ever?

The sound of unhurried footsteps crossed the dark stage then the lights came up bright. Kaylee blinked, blocking the glare with one palm. A lanky, young man in faded jeans and a white T-shirt strode onto the stage. He slapped a sheaf of papers on the card table and rattled a metal chair as he sat. Pulling one sheet off the stack, he crossed his legs and leaned back to read.

A woman walked to the front of the stage then down the steps, turning to sit in the front row. She had long graying hair and wore a loose smock. After nodding to Kaylee, she spoke to the man on the stage.

“Will Jenna be joining us?”

“The metro tunnel is flooded. She’s stuck between stations.”

The woman leaned one arm across her seat and turned to Kaylee. “Excuse me, Ms., if you have a few moments, could we ask you to sit in, just until Jenna arrives, and read a few lines?”

Kaylee sat up, thinking of leaving.

The woman said, “You know, My Dear, Life Goes On?”

“Excuse me.”

“The play, you might have heard we’re doing one by our local playwright, My Dear, Life Goes On.

“Of course, I’m sorry. My mind was wandering.” She introduced herself to the woman then to the man, who handed her the script for Jenna’s part.

After reviewing her lines, Kaylee noted that the card table had a white cover cloth and its legs were carved wood. Her seat had become an armchair upholstered in brocade. When she looked up, the man was wearing a white dinner jacket and she a strapless gown.

10_oriental_theater_chicago-e1483917340596Heavy curtains parted to applause, and the lights spotted the dinner scene—all quite lovely. Kaylee stumbled reading her first lines, but no one seemed to notice. Her gestures slowly smoothed as she got into the scene. Before it was over, she found she no longer needed a script. The audience applauded at the end, and her leading man insisted she take a solo bow center stage.

“Oh, that was wonderful,” she said. The lights dimmed. Then everyone slowly faded. The white-covered, carved wood dinner table returned to a bare card table. Her seat was a folding metal chair and her clothing what she’d put on that morning, still damp from the rain. Finding herself alone on the dark stage, Kaylee followed the dim-lit stairs and aisles out through the lobby.

The rain had stopped, and sun-haloed cumulous clouds cast rays of brilliant sunshine.

Kaylee looked back at the marquee she hadn’t seen clearly in the downpour. The last showing was still listed on the billboard: Time of Your Life by William Saroyan. Only one of the letters was missing. Tim_ of Your Life was crosshatched in black with a big CLOSED sign.

Below it another sign read, OPENING SOON – A NEW PLAY.

Feeling a Draft

“Back to work, Turd,” the guard whacked my head, “or you’ll get another beating.” A string of obscenities followed. I was a useless pile of excrement and began to believe it. The threat pulled me back sharply. Three days of work had brought me nothing but lost sleep. Today? More plodding with no end in sight.

My only breaks came when I was pulled in for interrogation. They refused to believe my story. Who was I? A writer? They laughed. What had I written? Was I holding back? No, because I was a liar, a fraud, an imposter. If I fessed up, they’d go easier on me.

One guard was friendlier—or pretended to be. She pleaded for me to give her something she could use, something believable, so she wouldn’t have to hurt me again. Reaching across the rough-hewn, wooden table, she set a tumbler in front of me. She swirled the glass in my face. I smelled vodka.

Want it? Give me something, something interesting, something I can use. She couldn’t abide another bore. All she’d seen from me were tiresome lies and fabrications. My story was full of holes, a mess of contradictions. Maybe if I was interesting, she might give me a break. She scooted the vodka closer.

I raised an eyelid, almost laughing. “Interesting and believable? Right now, I can’t be either. If you would just tell me what you want.” I opened my hands toward her, hating myself for being so pitiful. I shifted in my seat to relieve the pain of long sitting.

She reclaimed the vodka, tossed it back then dismissed me with a final skewer. “Admit it. You have nothing to tell us because you are a crashing bore. Be honest, and this can all be over.” I hung my head and returned to work.

My mind was slipping, but I didn’t care. Insanity would bring me some relief. When a guard squeezed through the food slot dragging a miniature table and chair, I didn’t blink. It wasn’t the usual guard. It was a rat dressed in a rumpled, brown trench coat.

Slide1“Sorry to disturb you, sir.” the rat said in the voice of Columbo, Peter Falk’s TV character. It touched its forepaws gently together then held them aloft. “I hear you’re some kind of a writer. You must be very smart. Could I maybe get your autograph … not for me … for my wife … she is a big fan … would never forgive me … myself, I don’t have time to read.” It went on and on, worse than the usual interrogation. Finally, it ended.

“Just one more thing. Sure you don’t have something you want to tell me?” It smiled, raising its eyebrows along with its paws.

I felt a sudden draft in the room. “Maybe I do have something,” I said, “but first let me give your wife my autograph. She’s been something of a muse.”

“Oh, that would be wonderful, sir. Thank you very much. She’ll be so pleased to hear that.”

 

I completed the draft, and my story was accepted. The torture ended, and I could breathe free again. At least until the draft for my next story was due.

The Book of Nathan

“What can you make of this?” The woman pushed the image across Nathan Shipley’s desk. Her soap-scrubbed scent contrasted with his unwashed odor and the mildew of the basement office. Nathan slipped his wire-rimmed spectacles back past his long hair and around his ears, then glanced down at the image. It was a single ideogram retouched to obscure its background, possibly a rubbing from a monument or headstone.

“Can you give me a little context? Where was this taken?” Nathan looked into the woman’s expressionless face. She appeared to be in her early thirties and in excellent physical shape, certainly not an academic. Military, he guessed, although she and the two large men with her wore gray business suits rather than uniforms.

“I’m sorry, Dr. Shipley,” she said. “I’m not permitted to reveal the location. Can you give me anything at all?”

“I’d guess it’s early Mycenaean, a predecessor to Linear A. But you knew that or you wouldn’t have come to me. Did it come off a building, a clay tablet, perhaps a pottery shard? With some context, I might venture an interpretation.”

“You could translate it?” Her eyes suddenly locked on his.

“With a wider sampling, most assuredly.” He feigned confidence, hoping he would get a chance to try. He touched the image. “This ideogram indicates time—the side marks are qualifiers.” The woman leaned in, eyebrows raised. “The leading qualifier negates prior time, the trailing one negates anything coming after.”

“Nothing before and nothing after?” The woman’s pressed palms almost clapped. “Alpha and omega?”

Nathan nodded. “Or infinity. If this came from a palace or a courthouse, it might symbolize final authority.” He scratched behind his hair-thatched ear. “On a tomb, it might indicate that time had lost all meaning.”

“Thank you, Dr. Shipley.” The woman pushed back her chair to stand. Thinking she was leaving, Nathan stood to see her off.

“We need you to come with us, Dr. Shipley.” She waved her two friends forward and whispered to them.

“I should be able to…” The woman grabbed his coat as the two men rushed him out to the waiting limousine. “Wait, my work…” Nathan protested.

 

Four months later, Nathan found himself on the observation deck of a Global Space Agency research lab far out in space.

“You brought me up here for this?” he asked, staring at the massive, metallic-glass sphere beside the lab. When GSA found it in Earth’s orbit three years earlier, they had keep it a secret—its location, hidden behind the far side of the sun, raised too many questions.

“What do you expect me to tell you?” Nathan asked, raising both hands, palms up. Beside him stood the woman who had kidnapped and accompanied him on the long trip to the space station.

“What it is … How to get inside,” she said, pointing to the sphere. “We’re at a standstill. You know how much money, how many scientists, how many crazy ideas are kicking around?” She looked at Nathan, her face contorted. “We’ve tried blasting, cutting, drilling—not even a dent. The thing just wobbles a bit and heals, like some indestructible bubble. We can’t even do a spectral analysis. We have no idea what sort of technology we are dealing with.”

“I suppose you tried going in the front door?” Nathan asked, tilting his head toward the sphere’s ornately embossed, other-century-style gateway.

“A field appears and blocks the way whenever we approach. Other than that, we’ve found no defenses and have gotten no reactions. Remember the symbol I showed you in your office?”

“The infinity ideograph?”Slide1

“It’s on the panel beside the gateway. You said you wanted context, a wider sampling. We think the panel might be interactive.”

“That’s it?” Nathan asked. “You want me to just walk up and say ‘hi.’” She nodded, lifting her eyebrows sheepishly and smiling.

Sixty minutes later, suited up for a spacewalk, Nathan hooked onto the cable-rail along the two-meter-wide platform connecting the GSA lab to the sphere.

As he approached, a field of white bloomed in the gateway, fluttering like wings of light. Then a clay-tablet-like panel emerged with the impression of the ideograph.

“Infinity,” Nathan murmured as he traced the panel’s symbol with his gloved finger. Another ideograph replaced the first, Who? Beneath it, Nathan clumsily traced an ideograph in the clay for “name” then the numeral six. The sixth day. The wings of light fluttered down. He entered the sphere.

The interior was bright. Gravity pulled Nathan’s feet onto a flat deck covered with living grass. The dome above displayed sunrise in a morning sky filled with drifting, puffy clouds, and a flock of birds, geese, honking like those he had seen as a boy, camping with his uncle up north. A stream-fed pond at the far side of a flowery meadow was nestled among trees, both evergreen and deciduous. Beyond them, hills rolled back to the horizon. Whitetail deer grazed nearby, lifting and lowering their heads.

“You have served your time, child of the sixth day, and may return,” a warm voice said. Nathan looked around for the source but saw no one. The fluttering white field again blocked the gateway. Longing to taste and feel the air, he removed his helmet and took a deep breath.

“Return to where? Where am I?” Nathan asked, feeling the sun warm his face and a breeze rustle his long hair.

“I prepared a special place for you, one with many rooms,” answered the voice.

“Is this a game or for real?” Everything felt, looked, and smelled Earth-like: gravity, atmosphere and terrain, plants and animals, the stream and clouds. More idyllic than Earth-like, Nathan thought as a hummingbird landed on his arm.

“I reach you where you are,” said the voice, “with what your mind is able to grasp. Your technical culture recoils from scrolls and clay tablets, anything not reducible to mathematical code, anything connected to your past. In growing, you have become uprooted. That is why I sent for you, Nathan Shipley.”

“You sent for me?” A chill shot up Nathan’s spine.

“By contacting your culture in the manner I did, I compelled scientists to seek you out and to ask the questions they have long forgotten. I created their paths for discovery long ago, in the stones, in the stars, and life itself—all things great and small. Yet those who followed my well-marked paths took credit only unto themselves, boastfully dismissing questions that would bring deeper understanding.”

“Why me?”

“You seek meaning in all things, not just the arrow pointing to the next arrow further up the path—the arrows I set. Your culture seeks the arrows only so its quiver might be filled.”

“I am just a collector and student of artifacts and ancient wisdom.”

“You are the one who will carry my message to my people,” the voice said softly. Nathan swallowed hard, feeling small and very frightened. The voice continued, “I will come again soon with a greater reality. It is a reality many will fear, for it will come upon them like a storm upon the sea. Others will embrace it. The wind will fill their sails and carry them forward. You must go and tell my people.”

Nathan trembled uncontrollably. “It is too much. I am weak and unworthy.”

“Two gifts I give you, fruit from each of my great trees.” A figure of light came forward with a tray bearing two star-like fruit: one green, one golden.

Nathan started. “But it is forbidden to—”

“Soon all may taste this fruit. They are for your mission.” The figure of light held out the tray and Nathan consumed the fruit. “Now go and tell my people.”

Light dimmed as the sun set beyond the hills. Other lights along the path directed him back to the gateway. The fluttering white field parted like a curtain. He found himself outside on the platform with his helmet in place.

Upon returning, Nathan was surrounded by scientists, engineers, and executives in the GSA main conference room. He had met and spoken with aliens—scientists refused to consider any other explanation. The medical staff found no damage from what the aliens had fed him; indeed, his health was extraordinary. The alien message that Nathan delivered threatened some and cheered others, just as the voice had told him. Most attributed it to post-trauma stress and delusion.

Nathan felt only calm. Cleverly worded legal documents he understood at a glance—even without his glasses, which he no longer required. He knew the tests scientists gave him were intended to twist the message he’d been given.

The next morning, a team prepared to re-enter the sphere. As they approached, the sphere vanished. Everyone at GSA seemed surprised, except Nathan. They decided to wait for its return. Hadn’t the message said, “I will come again?”

Nathan hid a smile. His new discernment told him the return would not be to the far side of the sun. “I must tell your people,” he murmured, remembering the voice and sensing the warm sun on his face.