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?”

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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.

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.

Public Enemy #1

To avoid prosecution, I have to confess everything before midnight—that’s when the Artificial Justice Law goes into effect. And since litigation is still pending on Thought Crimes United v. Humans, I’ll go ahead and get a few things off my chest.

The AI judges don’t understand this, but crime is a kick—all crime. That’s right, I just said that crime is fun. If you’re not eaten up with fear of getting caught, it’s a very heady experience.

So, let me say at the onset, I am NOT sorry for any of my virtual crimes. Not a thing. Not watching VR porn. Not stealing others’ virtual stuff. Not sabotaging avatars or jacking the program to make them perform obscene acts. Am I the only one who can admit this? Do I hear crickets? Is everyone out there posturing righteous shock while they jack or otherwise abuse non-player-characters and avatars in a closet?

Let me point out some advantages. Besides entertainment, I get material things. Okay, they’re virtual, but I don’t have to pay or work for them: extra lives, magic artifacts, cool weapons, complicit bed partners—more or less, at least after I tweak their settings.

Taking arrogant assholes down a peg is also very affirming—very ego boosting. You know the ones I mean: the rich Dudes and Duch-asses that buy status without actually solving or slaying anything, the ones who take Tiger tanks to fight cave-dwellers, or who bribe the tech to open a backdoor to level 36 then wait to ambush you with a pawnshop-purchased Nuke-A-Mega-Power-Wand that would make Lord Voldemort proud. You can only imagine the horror on the too-beautiful face of #my6y* when my submission tool bent her into full bondage posture and flipped her over. Ooo baby!

Yes, I used her real tag. That’s so you can contact her and tell her what a pussy she is. Unlike a true online warrior who would have demanded a rematch, she ran to her rich daddy and got him to bribe, I mean lobby, Senator Pokesnout to pass the Artificial Justice Law. My creative programs became Exhibits A thru H for artificial abuse and thought crimes.

I confess I may have been a little arrogant myself. While I played with #my6y*‘s pneumatic avatar, I hacked her friends and made them watch. Okay, so I programmed them to jump up and down, clap, and shout encouragement.

The new law is crazy. What is virtual? The Artificial Justice Law is pretty vague on that point. Are crayon trees virtual trees and finger-painted houses artificial? Looking at naughty pictures of Elmer Fudd carries the same penalty as sexual assault. If your daughter draws stick figures, make sure she puts pants on them. And your five-year-old boy should know that the alphabet building block with the “L” on one face looks like an automatic, high-powered, .45 caliber, assault pistol that will turn him into a school-clearing serial killer.

Ahh, I feel so much better. It’s still a few hours to midnight, so I’m going to play every game I have that’s on the forbidden list. Then I’ll work on my virtual stealth program so I can get around their Artificial Justice Law.

Catch you later in my XXX virtual dungeon.

Not Alone (Exactly)

“May the pollen of cognition quicken the carpels of your mind, and may your roots forever find nutrients.”

Half awake, I stared at the message on the console then sat upright. I scratched the stubble on my chin and crossed out the log entry where I attributed the incoming signal to a wobbling pulsar. My Associate’s Degree put me at the bottom of the food chain, alone on the night shift.

I kept watching, and SETI’s decryption gear kept chugging. One word, a long pause, another word, another pause, sentences slowly formed and crossed the monitor. The SETI equipment had been a joke, something the astrophysics lab had had to accept to get funding.

While I waited for the message to end, I grabbed a cup of coffee. It tasted like a fine slurry of asphalt and diesel fuel, scalding my lips. I’d left the pot boiling.

The translation took half an hour. I marked the time and the celestial coordinates. The signal repeated seven times.

It suddenly hit me what I had. “Oh, my God,” I mouthed. My next thought was Janis playing a nasty trick. “Okay, she got me.” Hoping to catch Janis giggling, I jerked my head quickly up and about. The station was silent except for the cooling fan in the console.

Barely able to breath, I magnified the star map in the area of the signal. Then I zoomed in until the directional cross hairs centered over Clio 16877, a red dwarf star in the Cancer constellation near the open star cluster, M44. The exoplanet database listed one planet orbiting so close that no reliable data had been captured.

So, this is it, and I am here, the only one on duty to receive the first extraterrestrial contact. I savored my moment. No need to rush. I would send out an alert before the morning shift arrived. Despite all the talk about team effort, I wanted all the credit for myself. Anyone would do the same.

There was certainly no rush from the other end. Clio 16877 was four thousand light years away. That meant the aliens had sent the message before Moses parted the Red Sea. A return message would take as long, plus time to craft something suitably inane to not offend anyone. The aliens had sent gifts, too, and we would be expected to reciprocate. Not my problem.

I refilled my cup with molten sludge and propped my feet on the console. After the opening wish about pollinating my carpels the message continued:

 

Dwellers of Soil,

Greetings from Evergreen. We hope this message reaches you in time. Failing to hear from you, we fear the worst. Recent analysis indicates that your planet faces serious atmospheric pollution, including a dangerously high concentration of free oxygen. To restore the correct balance, we’ve sent star-powered satellites into your atmosphere to manufacture high volumes of carbon dioxide. These will also help you restore Soil to the correct hothouse temperature.

A similar issue became critical on Evergreen recently with the evolution of an aggressive species. These evil Vegans devour us and are spreading across our world. Not satisfied with pillaging our natural resources, Vegans have begun raising and eating our young, regarding only their nutrient value and not their intelligence.

Independent of starlight and soil nutrients, these rootless Vegans move from forest and field to jungles, grasslands, and seas. At the rate they are progressing, we fear these beings will eliminate all sentient vegetation long before you can come to our assistance.

In hopes that you may survive our fate, we pass along the great wonders of our technology and culture.

Yours in root and branch,

Evergreen

 

The gifts from Evergreen depressed me as much as their message. Petal loss was not a major problem for humans, and I hadn’t noticed any droop in my stamen. Their solution for high levels of oxygen would cause immediate panic on Earth.

Still there was hope. I thought farmers might find their cure for canker useful. And their music sounded okay, like someone tuning a didgeridoo. Maybe we could send them some Willy Nelson or yodeling. But on second thought, a Hopi rain dance might be more appropriate.

I decided to leave these problems for the day shift.

The Child Has Good Instincts

“She has sad eyes,” the four-year-old girl said, tapping Terrell’s crossed knee and watching the creature on the examining table. “Can I show her my dog?”

She was the beetle Professor Terrell brought back from his travels. The shiny black Madagascar beetle tipped the scale at 176 pounds. Her six splayed legs drooped over the table edges. The beetle’s compound, black eyes glistened under the lamps. Smaller simple eyes glinted along its dark-bristled forehead.

Without lifting his eyes, Terrell nodded and pointed an index finger from the touchpad.

Little Jenny dashed to the lab table, carrying a squirming golden retriever puppy in her arms. “Want to play with Chloe?” she asked. She offered the puppy to the dark, horn-ridged creature. Terrell noted the time and turned on the recorder.

The beetle touched the sniffing puppy two or three times with its antennae then extended a clawed forward leg. Chloe leaned into the outstretched claw, stretching to better feel the saw-toothed edge comb across her back and down her rump and tail.

Jenny laughed and said, “Chloe likes that.” She sidled up close to stroke her dog’s head and look into the beetle’s eye. “Can you talk, Mister Beetle?”

The beetle ratcheted a few squeaks.

“It’s okay if you can’t. Mommy says I talk enough for two people. I talk to Chloe all the time, and she never says anything. Some of my stuffed toys talk, but you have to squeeze them.”

“Aaaaa,” Jenny’s mother screamed and raced into the room. “Jenny, don’t.” She snatched up her little girl then backpedaled, keeping her eyes on the beetle. The beetle arched one antenna in her direction. Chloe curled tight and closed her eyes as the beetle continued smoothing and stroking her coat.

The mother screamed her outrage at Professor Terrell. “How could you let such a thing happen? Put my precious little Jenny in such terrible danger?” The professor shrugged and made another note. “I’m calling the police. I’ll have you investigated for child endangerment.”

She looked down at Jenny, nearly crushed in her tight-wrapped arms. “Are you okay, my darling? Did that nasty, nasty thing harm you? Oh, when I think … oh my, what it might have done, killed you, eaten you.”

She pressed the back of her hand to her lowered face then glared at Terrell. Waving to the beetle, she said, “We don’t know anything about this, this awful thing.”

“We know it likes Chloe, and it likes me,” said Jenny, wide-eyed and smiling. “Mommy, could you get me one? Please? It’s very sweet.”

Her mother winced, baring her teeth. Jenny wiggled free and ran to the beetle, handing it the fuzz-stuck, lime lollipop from her pocket.

Professor Terrell made a note. “Observation: the child has good instincts as does the dog. Unlike the adult subject, they appraised the situation with open minds.”

Never Leave Me

“What color are my eyes?” she asked. Chrissy’s eyes were closed. She tucked her blue chiffon dress and sat across from Josh in the white, garden swing.

Josh exited the news display and looked up. “What color do you want them to be?”

“I asked first,” she said then bit her lip, her laced fingers clenched in her lap. Raven hair framed her pale, pretty face and curled softly under her chin.

The spring day was sunny, blue, and breezy. Multi-colored flowers danced in the garden and along the paths, spreading their fragrance with each gust. Splashing water laughed in the pedestal fountain. A red-throated skink jag-walked from a cluster of blue phlox, glanced about then skittered away.

“Your doe eyes are soft brown and beautiful, my love,” Josh said.

“Then it is me,” Chrissy said. She opened her eyes, her gaze dropping. “Now you’re going to tell me they’ve always been brown.” Their eyes came together.

Josh restrained a sigh and leaned forward. “What’s the matter, dear?”

“I remember my eyes being blue,” she said. “If they’ve always been brown, my mind must be going. And you, Josh, you’re getting older while I look the same … except for having brown eyes. I don’t mind looking younger, but I want us to age together. I feel out of place, like I don’t belong here.”

“I love the dress you’re wearing.” Josh changed the subject.

“Thank you. It was laid out on the bed when I woke up.”

A call came from the hedge gate. “Joshua, Chrissy, anybody home?”

“Here by the garden swing,” Josh said. Jordan, Josh’s sister, appeared. She nodded up and strode toward them.

“Such a beautiful day,” Jordan said. Josh smiled his agreement.

Chrissy closed her eyes. “Jordan, what color are my eyes?”

Startled, Chrissy glanced at Josh and saw him mouth, “Brown.”

“Have you changed your eye color?” Jordan asked. “Last I recall they were a beautiful brown. Did you get contacts? Show me.”

Chrissy opened her downcast, brown eyes. “Can I get you something cool to drink?” she asked.

“Iced tea, lemon, not sweet,” Jordan said. Chrissy slid off the swing and slumped to the patio service counter.

“Sorry, Josh,” Jordan whispered to his ear. “I remember she said she wanted brown eyes.”

“She’s upset about the difference in our ages, too,” Josh said. “Of course, our ages are different. It’s been ten years.” Jordan squeezed her brother’s neck and kissed the side of his head.

“No matter what I do, I can’t make her happy,” he said, bringing his folded hands to his forehead. “I don’t think I can handle another suicide … even one day without her … I just can’t.”

Jordan rolled her lips in then wrapped both arms around her brother’s head. “You’ll start again?”

“I have no choice.” Josh kept his voice low. “Once depression sets in, she goes quickly.”

Chrissy returned with a tall glass of tea and handed it to Jordan. She forced a straight-lipped smile then pulled the garden swing under her and kicked gently to start its motion.

“Thank you,” Jordan said, lifting her eyes and brows toward Chrissy. “I stopped by to ask if you’d like to go with me to the craft fair. It starts in the park this afternoon and runs all weekend. We could go tomorrow, if you prefer.” She tilted her head.

“Yes, maybe tomorrow,” Chrissy said. “It’s warm and I’m a little tired. I think I’ll go lie down.” She rose and flashed the same flat smile as she left.

“Check with you tomorrow,” Jordan said, keeping her tone light. She touched Josh’s sleeve then headed for the hedge gate.

Josh found Chrissy reclined on the sofa, shoulders back, eyes closed, breathing deeply. “Are you upset,” he asked. She pursed her lips. A tear rolled from the corner of her eye down across her temple.

“Let me help,” he said, reaching and kneading the back of her neck. Chrissy rocked her head forward. He pressed her second cervical vertebra then the first vertebra twice, completing the code. Chrissy’s lips and eyelids parted slightly, and she went limp.

Josh carried her to the back room and down the steps. He laid her gently on a high, gray, soapstone table. Tenderly he removed her blue chiffon dress, her shoes and stockings, her underwear, earrings, bracelet, and sapphire, pendant necklace. He moved her body to a tub-sized, glass tank and opened the fill valves. He checked the cell assembly and flow tracks then opened the additive manufacturing schematic. He replicated the last design pattern and advanced the model number to 344. He then reset the eye color to bluish gray and tweaked up the dopamine receptors. Before pressing restart, he added ten years, composed a script to cover the lost time, and erased the memory of today. A dozen laser tools and suction pipes, guided by cell-recognition software, swung into place.

Josh couldn’t watch. He knew Chrissy’s cells were being removed, reprogrammed, and reset—the recycled cells from the body he’d claimed after her suicide. He wanted her back with all the joy she had when they’d first met.

 

Chrissy tucked her blue chiffon dress and slid into the garden swing.

Sitting opposite her, Josh closed the news projection, sat up, and smiled. “How about going to the craft fair with Jordan this afternoon?” he asked.

“That’d be fun,” Chrissy said. She leaned forward and kissed him.

“I love that dress you’re wearing,” Josh said.

Chrissy smiled. “I haven’t worn this dress in years, but it was laid out on the bed when I woke. You set it out for me, didn’t you? I know we’re aging, but you still prefer me dressing young.”

He flashed his best who-me smile. “It looks great on you.”