Forget about wondering what’s out there. We found out, and it ain’t as mysterious or scary as people think. It’s strange, yeah, but isn’t it like that with anything new? Alien(s). Think about that word for a minute. The ‘white man’ uses it to describe the people coming up from south of the border, though he might be less inclined to call the same people coming from the north or from Europe, the same thing. He has a different word for them. Immigrants. Travelers, maybe. Explorers. Voyagers. Yeah, I like voyagers. That’s what Captain Kirk and Spock did when they invaded some “strange new world and tried to change it.” A little different if you think about covered wagons snaking through the badlands of Native American territory during the 1800s, trying to change people. Or, let’s flip the idea on its head. Think of a spaceship full of Mexicans cruising into the ether of black starry skies, call it the ultimate lowrider bouncing between worlds. Now think of Captain Kirk as the janitor on that ship. Fathom Los Canadiens, or Los Italians, or Los Muslims doing the same thing. Everyone wants a seat at the table, everyone just trying to get along. Right, my brother?
I was invited to yet another barbecue to mix with a group of strangers. Strangeness, along with these strange topics of conversation with my buddy Charley Ingram, abounded on a fall Saturday afternoon in Box Elder, South Dakota, a small town due east of Rapid City, where a patch of old military houses was tucked in next to Ellsworth Air Force Base. Next to it sat weedy fields and vacant lots separated by chain link fences, no rhyme nor reason to community design. The small village housed personnel at the government facility for U.S. bombers – pilots, airmen and civilians providing support services. A lazy day was just that, lazy, except for Charley’s idea of relaxing conversation, always a focal point of politics, and usually the wrong kind of politics, the kind of talk that never gets resolved and hits people in all the wrong ways. Get’s them chattering about what makes them mad instead of finding things in common.
“We live in a culture of hate; in America, we’re raised to think fighting is OK, that it’s the norm, man, you get it? You and me, we bear that warrior mentality, my friend,” said the one and only Charley Ingram. He was proud of his trailer-trash roots, a man climbing a blue-collar ladder, first as a mechanic, then a small business owner running his own shop. It wasn’t much but he made a decent living changing out transmissions or “trannies,” which made him convulse in laughter, for the obvious reason.
So, busy talking and practically the only one listening, he let the ashes from his Marlboro fall into the grill where burgers and franks sizzled. He saw that I noticed and said, “no one’s going to mind a little seasoning,” and giggled, the rapid fire of a “heh-heh-heh,” sounding a lot like that Fozzie Bear of Muppet Show fame, which made me laugh too – the kind of laugh you try to hold back but a little snot ends up shooting out your nose. You try to get it back but it’s too late. Then he was back to philosophizing about present day politics, the gatekeepers, Washington’s in-crowd, then everyone else’s, the oblivious zombies with their hands glued to remotes and Game-Boy controls and mobile phones. “Why this wall along Mexico’s border? A bunch of white supremacist bullshit, if you ask me. And I’m a white person saying this. Man, if you ask me, we should be paying reparations to the Sioux tribes we put on reservations, not bailing out fucking Wall Street.”
His rant led into a discussion about semantics and how if, in his mind, “you’re white, you’re right. We take what we can get but then why do we have to pay taxes, too? It’s a real game of Monopoly, and the common man already lost a long time ago. Not $200. Nothing man. Not shit! Then, corporate America… Don’t get me started.”
These rhetorical questions and comments about complex social issues sifted through my head as nothingness. It was Charley’s way of keeping his mind off losing his wife, who had weeks before filed for divorce. A few months back, Brenda, a chunky, simple midwestern girl caught her husband with a lonely spouse of one of the airman at the base – a young intelligence officer off on another deployment around the world or some temporary duty at the Pentagon. I found it surprising, Charley and Brenda were still living together, but as they put it, “it was for the kids.”
By happenstance, Brenda saw his truck outside an Applebee’s at a nearby shopping mall. He was out buying some replacement tools and plumbing fixtures at the Home Depot. That’s where they met. The woman said she needed help with installing a Big Ass (the actual brand name) ceiling fan in her husband’s work shop, and thought Charley might help fill her lonely void. They got to talking, which led to midafternoon beers at the restaurant, which led to a blowjob in the cab of his Dodge Ram, which led to Brenda finding them exposing their private parts to each other. Peeking through the window, with her hands to the side of her face to cut down on the glare allowed her to get a good look while she watched the woman, a 20-something “skinny little blonde,” in Brenda’s words, finish on her husband while his eyes were closed, feeling the full extent of this afternoon delight. As usual, he couldn’t have lasted more than a minute, and she pondered how such a moment, which lasted mere seconds, could end their lifetime of joy together. Tragic.
“You’re a fucking pig,” she chastised him on the spot, drawing a crowd of onlookers in the parking lot. “Don’t bother coming home, you fucker!” Charley told me it was a sight he would soon not forget, seeing his wife’s eyes fill up with tears, her swollen distraught face, blaming it on living in a small town. I didn’t think Rapid was that small, but whatever.
“Brenda never would have found out in a big city,” he said. “Just my luck. Ain’t seen that little blonde since.” Though, he knew that was a lie, and he knew that his bullshit didn’t fly, especially with me. He hadn’t changed since I knew him in high school.
I nodded my head, and could only respond with who he thought would win the Husker game that afternoon, seeing a dire need to change the topic from both unwieldy politics and his penchant for cheating. I heard him conclude, “if I was president, I could pardon myself,” followed by the pelting sound of his Fozzie laugh. As he slipped an overdone meat patty on my toasted hamburger bun, something caught my attention in the ashen sky. Clouds in the shape of thunderheads closed in on the light tint of blue, which at first, I thought, was the gathering of an afternoon storm. Then, snaps of lightening splintered across the grey and white puffs, but no rain. The clouds rumbled. Haphazard beams of colorful lights appeared, like the ultimate rock light show.
“Isn’t that strange,” one of the other guests told Brenda, whose attention was absorbed in playing a game on her iPhone 10. The man who spoke was their neighbor, an elderly gentleman who fancied himself a sort of elder statesman, half Sioux and half Irish, and an Air Force retiree. He had this sort of countrified street cred, and people revered him for serving his nation for 31 years and change. In truth, they’d ask themselves, what was it all for.
“I’ve never seen anything like that,” he said, scratching at his ragged beard, which framed the lower half of his face. In the upper half, a pair of sad eyes pulled wider with his grey and black hair pulled back into a ponytail. He wore a blue jeans shirt and a turquoise bolo around his neck, touting himself as a holy man to whoever would listen. “I think the true owners of this planet are coming back to roost, just like I said they would.”
Brenda dropped her phone to the table. “I think you’re right; They ought to,” she said, not knowing what else to say, clicking buttons on her phone. “Weather service says nothing. Must be a freak storm. Gotta be.” Standing up, she kicked her patio chair back, knocking it over in a mindless fashion. Charley kept chattering, the long bill of his Broncos cap keeping him from immediately noticing. But he reacted to my slack jaw, and my craned head looking straight up. The colorful clouds were thick and fast moving.
“What’d I say?” He asked, “C’mon, man, this is good stuff here.”
The wind picked up and the sound of shuttering claps of thunder finally got him to shut up. Brenda commanded, “get everyone in the house!” The wind stoked the flames coming out of the grill and Charley closed the lid to the already charred patties and dogs, smoke curling in our faces. “Holy-moly, it’s like it’s coming right down on top of us.” His oldest daughter, Cassie, charged out to the adjacent playground to gather the kids, who in their excitement and bewilderment, let out loose phrases laced with unprovoked profanity, to which she told them to “shut the hell up, and get in the house, now! And I mean now!”
In a matter of minutes, everyone was inside, though I couldn’t remember all the faces as they passed through the patio doorway. My vision of it was like a time-lapse camera, seeing the kids run toward the house with Cassie picking up the little ones, and Brenda helping her old neighbor, who forgot his cane and fretted the whole time once he was inside. Another couple, who Charley barely knew, ran to their car, yelling back. They said they were going to try to make it home. He nodded, keeping one hand on his faded blue and orange cap, while his other hand reached down beneath the grill to disconnect the propane tank. He then rolled the grill and the tank to a space between the house and the wooden fence surrounding the yard, wedging the equipment there in case the storm was anything like a tornado.
Once inside, the kids huddled in the living room.
One of their other guests, a woman, kept repeating, “Oh my God. Oh my God, what’s happening?” Then she crossed herself and lapsed into muttering prayers.
Brenda held onto her youngest, sitting little Meagan on her lap. She was on the floor leaning her back against the ottoman. Only Phillip, their middle child looked out the patio door. I sat on the edge of the recliner with their dog, a Pitbull-Rottweiler mix the family called Fleabag. The mutt whined and shivered next to my leg. Charley went to the kitchen and brought out a few beers for the adult guests, another couple which included the hysterical woman that stayed behind. They sat silent on the couch while the man tried to calm her. Their boy stood a few feet back from Phillip, asking him what it looked like out there. “Is a tornado coming?” he asked.
Brenda hefted Meagan onto my lap, which made the recliner lean forward, then she crawled to the patio door. Brenda pulled the cord to draw the bamboo shade closed. It took a split second for the shade to roll down to the floor, putting an end to boys’ show. Phillip complained, “ah, ma, how we supposed to know what’s going on?” The low rumble of thunder passed overhead, feeling like it was getting closer. “Damn it to hell mom!” He tried to mimic his father, a weak case of pouting.
“This is your fault,” Brenda said, casting mean eyes at Charley. “You taught them, now you deal with it.”
“I can see out the kitchen window,” Charley said, oblivious to Brenda’s charges. “There’s no rain or shit, just a friggin’ fog.”
“What did I say?” Brenda said, grabbing Meagan back from me, and hugging her tight, which caused her to grunt. Picking up a pack of cigarettes, she lit one without thinking.
“I said friggin’,” Charley said.
“Mooooom!” Meagan whined, “put me down.”
Cracking open a Bud, Charley sipped it nervously, sitting on the arm at the other end of the couch, while the couple they invited to the barbecue on the spur of the moment whispered to each other about how coming to the house was a mistake. The woman, who had earlier started to weep, leaned her head onto her husband’s broad shoulder. He opened his bearded mouth to drain his beer, then asked Charley if the TV worked, clearing his throat at first, emitting a growl, sounding like he was trying to get everyone’s attention. Fleabag let out a bark, which he thought was at him. Instead, it was at the inside of the house growing dark in the middle of the day. The big brown dog lunged at the patio door until Charley yelled at him to shut up, then the four-legged beast slowly backed to the recliner and laid down again, emitting pitiable moans.
Cassie went around the living room turning on lamps. In doing so, she asked if anyone needed anything to eat, water, a blanket. She tapped the power button on the TV hanging on the wall and the screen displayed static, said, “looks like no signal, Bud,” she said. She turned down the volume to quiet the hissing noise.
“Might as well leave it on,” Brenda said, “could be something comes on later.”
The lights flickered and went out and so did the TV. I pulled out my lighter and switched it to a high flame.
“Any candles?” I asked.
Brenda grabbed my hand and led me to the kitchen. Charley, hyperventilating, leaned against a wood-paneled wall trying to catch his breath without being seen. He didn’t want anyone to know he was scared, but he wasn’t fooling anyone. His bug eyes grew bigger, barely visible behind a pair of thick square-framed glasses and the reflection from my lighter.
“Should be some candles in the junk drawer,” he said, voice cracking.
“Don’t worry,” Brenda said, “I got a few kerosene lanterns in the pantry. We’ll start there.”
Once lit, she handed one to me, then held up the other to the kitchen window. The dense fog moved like cigarette smoke around the house, swirling slowly, like it had a life of its own. The wind hit the house with gusts like punches, making it feel like the house was going to lift off the foundation like a scene out of the Wizard of Oz. Each time it did, the clouds vibrated with an electric current, causing the lights and the TV to flicker. Pictures of the TVs emergency broadcast channel flashed on and off. The broken transmission of a man’s voice made Fleabag bark again. Everyone in the room held their breath each time the newscast broke through with a crackle, then it passed, fading back into the static.
Outside the wind stopped. The whistling sounds diminished. Then, more light came through the dense fog which appeared as though it started to lift. Cassie disappeared to her bedroom and brought out her computer, saying, “Maybe we’ll have better luck with this.” To her surprise, she had internet connection, but not much of a battery. She clicked to a news website which dedicated its entire landing page to an emergency message ordering all citizens to shelter in place. This is an emergency broadcast. Stay where you are, it said. All travel is restricted. The President has declared Martial Law and has instituted an immediate curfew. Do not go outside. All violators will be arrested and detained. The audio repeated in a loop. Being next to an Air Force base, going outside was highly unlikely with security police patrols going back and forth. I got up from the recliner, feeling soreness in my knuckles. I had been wringing my hands without being conscious of it. Walking to the patio window, I nudged the blinds aside. The fog swam through the back yard like it was alive – like it was searching for something. Was it poison like sarin gas?
Without warning, long grey tentacles slammed against the glass, causing me to jump back. I tripped and landed on my ass, prompting Charley to ask, “What the fuck? What’s out there? What do you see? Better yet, who… who do you see?” I rolled along the floor onto my stomach, and crawled back to the recliner, feeling defeated. Like everyone, my nerves were shot. Hours had passed and the flames in the kerosene lamps started to go out.
“There’s something out there,” I said. “It ain’t one of us, and I’m pretty sure it ain’t the Air Force doing their drills either.”
“Alright, that’s enough,” Brenda said. “You’re scaring the kids.” I glanced at the boys struggling to keep their eyes open.
The couple on the couch, Beardy and his overweight hysterical wife, fell asleep. The kids didn’t feel anything. They were glued to the blank screen of the TV. More than anything, they were tired. Their eyes were puffy with dark circles. The smoke outside the window began to clear. Long grey legs scraped against the outside walls of the house. After an eternity of blackness, the tall creatures crouched down to show their faces, prompting us to guess their motive, and their next move. We all thought the same way: Did they want to know us, and what did they want from us? Passing in the back of the house, inching closely along, the creatures squatted even lower, at a level that made it plain enough to see their glassy black eyes, the dark searching sensors of a what appeared to be giant spiders with reptile skin.
Instead of something ready to attack us, rocks fell from their tail end, which swung like a pendulum. The creatures shimmied and shivered to shake the stones loose. The objects were oval shaped, and from appearances had soft shells like the thick skin of a pachyderm. Its markings changed to match earth’s terrain. Like a chameleon, the eggs color shifted, and not every one of them was the same size either. Some of them, the size of a wheelbarrow, others small as a bowling ball.
I stayed awake through the early morning watching the creatures dotting the landscape with these eggs. By first light, all the creatures were gone without a trace. All night, I heard the bombers taking off from Ellsworth, they must have been using guidance systems to navigate through the thick walls of clouds. There were small explosions coming from nearby Rapid City. I could see the glow of fires from 20 miles away. The boys had fallen asleep on the floor, while Charley and Brenda found their way to the bedroom with their two younger kids Phillip and Meagan between them.
Charley’s childish stupidity and their pending divorce paled in comparison to the millions of people being reported as missing from around the world. The spotty news stories on the internet showed pictures of widespread panic; entire cities were caught in a war between two groups of aliens – there was that word again, indicating something bad. One stayed busy knocking out our infrastructure via drone ships, while the much larger ships, likely host vessels of the ones laying eggs, travelled to remote locations depositing the live creatures, many of them dying in the destruction. I sat in the recliner, stunned, sort of admiring the news reporters brave enough to follow the action. Cassie stayed awake too, fueled by adrenaline and a wandering mind. She conserved the battery of the laptop which sat between us by shutting it off between our bursts of curiosity and concern.
“What’s going to happen to us?” she asked me, as she handed me a cup of coffee and some toast. “I mean, we knew they were coming. I know we did, and this wasn’t some cooked-up conspiracy. I can’t believe we weren’t ready for this. All this time we could have been doing something.”
Her father’s daughter, I thought, with all this talk. For being 16, I thought her insight was spot-on. It surprised me. She had opinions, though, which made better sense. We could have been talking to them all along.
“I don’t know Cassie,” I said. “I think our fears, obviously not you and me, get the better of us. I mean, I’m scared too but why run and hide. Plus, we seem to let the little things in life get to us. My belief is that human beings are incapable of rising above it. We get in our own way, and if we get in our own way, what makes you think we’re going to agree on a plan to get along with some creatures, beings from another planet? They don’t stand a chance… and maybe we don’t stand a chance.”
As quickly as it began, from the humans’ perspective on earth, their startling arrival, their small skirmish, the alien battle had ended. An interdimensional curtain had opened for an instant, and closed in less than 24 hours, in an historic, overnight conflict – one that would soon be forgotten and never written into human history; the video coverage of the news organizations was erased. Our world would never know. The sun had come up over the track homes and winding roads of Box Elder. It was Sunday going on noon when the house began to stir. Charley appeared first, coming down the hallway in a Broncos T-shirt filled with holes and his dingy white boxers. He sat at the kitchen counter in front of a bowl of Trix, the kids’ cereal, scooping spoonful after spoonful into his mouth and letting milk dribble down his chin.
“Man,” he said, “I must have had one too many beers. My head feels like it’s on fire.”
I turned to my side on the recliner, pulling a worn comforter over my shoulder. I rubbed my eyes and pressed the power button on the TV remote, cringing about what I might see. On came CBS Sunday Morning with a live shot of birds flying over the Florida Everglades, the camera panning slowly from scene to scene.
“Oh yeah, besides that,” Charley said, “me and Brenda called off the divorce. We’re going to try to work things out. Ain’t that something?”
Getting to my feet, with the blanket still draped around me, I made more coffee while the kids joined Charley in finishing off the box of cereal. Grabbing the cup of hot java, I wandered out onto the patio door to assess the damage. A clear sky showed little activity over Ellsworth and Rapid. First responders must have put out the fires. I looked around the backyard and noticed little had moved. Brenda’s chair was still overturned. I lifted the lid to the grill and found the meat burned to a crisp, as black as charcoal, finding it peculiar the strong winds hadn’t blown the grill into the next county, or that the aliens hadn’t crushed everything in sight. Where were the giant eggs? I had seen them with my own eyes. Sipping on my coffee and wondering, I stood in Charley’s backyard while life went on. Cassie emerged onto the patio with her laptop. She was the only other one who hadn’t fallen asleep.
“Well, our couch potatoes left,” she announced. “You know this is weird, nobody else in the house remembers what happened. It’s like we’re one giant etch-a-sketch… they all think I was telling them about a bad dream I had. The emergency website disappeared.”
“Unless you and I had the same bad dream…” I said. “I guess it’s our little tale to tell.”
“Maybe it affected mom’s memory of dad fooling around with that lady, too,” she said. “I didn’t think she’d ever change her mind about that.”
I turned up my mug with the last bit of coffee, savoring the grounds and shaking the last drops to the ground. “You want more, I’m going inside anyway?” she asked, her cute round face flashing a smile. “As they say, nothing to see here.” She laughed at her own joke.
“No bother. Guess I’ll come back in too.”
As I stepped across the threshold of the patio door, I paused, thinking about those eggs. I could buy the memory loss. It’s true. The aliens can’t catch everyone in the net and erase all our experiences, the majority belief wins, I guess. Still, how’d all those eggs disappear? I suppose they’re buried and we’ll find them hatched in a few years, and whatever’s inside… Not worth the thought, if I really don’t know.
Charley joking with the kids inside, laughing like Fozzie, made me forget all that.