|Fiction and More|
or the Search for Armaggedon in Ol' Man Kelsey's Woods
Science Fiction Novelette
David E. Booker
All the trouble began when Frank led the halos into our training camp out in Ol' Man Kelsey's woods. We should have consulted Brother Rick then, but I felt it wouldn't be proper to disturb a minister on Sunday night. Besides, what would you say to a man of the cloth that usually (and quite well) handles poisonous snakes: "Come handle our aliens, Brother Rick. They say there is going to be a galactic battle here. An Armageddon. Can you help?"
Well, what would you say?
We had all seen the bright white glow the eighth night after Thanksgiving. The sky had crackled like lightning when it splits the air nearby and makes your neck hairs stand up, and the ground had rumbled like thunder, the Earth reeling like it'd been knocked a step or two out of its tracks.
"Sounds like the world's biggest finger thumping the world's biggest watermelon." Frank said.
I rolled my eyes back and shook my head.
Frank glared at me. "What's the matter, Wilbur? You can do better?"
I started to speak, but stopped. He was once my best friend, befriending me when no one else would. He even introduced me to my wife. I've forgiven him for that. But since the members of the newly para-military, NRA-supported Royal Order of Whites made me leader, nothing between me and Frank has been right.
Finally, I told him to take two men and find out what had crashed. He stared at me for a minute, then moved away. He had been gone three days when he came back with the halos. They had found him.
At first we didn't think the halos were angels (with a small "a") or messengers of any kind. There was a general unspoken consensus to shoot them. I felt my own finger tightening around my rifle trigger. After all, they could be spies or an advance guard. Soon others would follow, and we didn't need any alien castaways from some shipwrecked space vessel further polluting our gene pool. We had enough from our own world.
I think the halos sensed our hostility, because without so much as a twitch of a muscle, one of them fired a heat beam at a nearby oak. It sizzled and flared into flames.
Frank let out a whistle. "Set it on fire like a cheap match."
I felt my fifty-five-year-old heart begin to move in ways it hadn't since Nam.
"They could of done me that way," Frank said with the degree of respect I should've been getting.
We all took a step or two back and contemplated our mortality. I did, anyway.
One of the aliens stepped forward and placed a small diamond-shaped device on a nearby tree stump. It projected images into the night sky as we all looked up to see a replay of the recent battle they'd fought. In the images was a familiar looking planet. Ships darted in and out of the atmosphere. One even crashed into the rings, scattering pieces everywhere.
"Ain't that Saturn?" I said.
"Wilbur, stupid, that's a car," Frank said.
"Yes," one of the aliens replied. "We have been fighting this enemy for many of your centuries, finally ending here. The last battle will be here. Earth."
The images continued a few moments more, then the clouds returned.
"They speak our language," Frank said. "Armageddon."
"Yes, we do," one of the halos said. It was hard to tell which one, since I didn't see any lips move. I didn't really see any heads either, just a dull glowing. Then one of the halos extended what passed for a hand. "I will not hurt it."
"Hurt what?" I asked.
"Your . . . stick."
"Stick?" I hesitated, then realized he was talking about my rifle.
"Don't give it to him," Frank said. "He may use it on you."
"Instead of his heat beam?"
Frank was speechless.
Several men had their rifles raised. I stepped forward and held out mine. The halo reached out and took it. My rifle became encased in light, flecks of it bouncing off the barrel as he (I guess it was a he.) examined it, turning it around and around like some freshman baton twirler in the Pride of the Southland Marching Band. Turning it until---Crack!
I don't know where the bullet went. I do know the recoil and smoke caught the halo off guard. He stumbled sideways, bumping into his friend. Several of my men hit the ground or scrambled for cover.
"Hold your fire!" I yelled. "Don't shoot."
The halos righted themselves and the one with the rifle stepped toward me. "This is your . . . weapon?"
I nodded. "Yes."
"It is more dangerous to you than to your enemy."
I smiled. No sense releasing him from that notion.
"We have many enemies," he said. "They have forced us to rest here. We will be ready to leave by dawn. Do you have many enemies?"
When we told them we were out in Ol' Man Kelsey's woods training because we had many enemies and knew the end was at hand, they started taking a special interest in us. I said we had the right future for America all mapped out, but many pursued us to stop us. The halos told us they were here to save a few of us. Naturally, I was flattered they'd picked us to go on their galactic Noah's Ark. I just wasn't sure we wanted to.
They asked us how we knew the end was at hand. We told them because the Good Book says that the true believers should be preparing for the end and for the next world. The halos told us they were most impressed by that answer, that they had heard of this Good Book way out there. Then they asked if any of us was a Neal's son, or knew where they could find the Neal's son's family. "Are they listed in this 'Good Book'?"
That's when we had our first conference. Frank was opposed to giving them a Bible, saying we didn't know them from Adam's off ox. Besides, Neals son sounded Jewish.
I agreed that we didn't know them, but I pointed out that if they didn't get the Bible from us, they could certainly get it from just about anybody else, or from any church, or from any motel. (I even found one in my room in the Pink Pagoda motel in Saigon.) The nearest motel run by an Iranian family was several hours walk, and I didn't want the "resting" halos, who appeared to have no other means of transportation, out wandering around until we decided what to do with them.
"We could kill them right now," Frank said.
"And what good would that do us?" I asked.
Frank looked blank, like a TV empty of its picture.
"Well, who would find out way out here?" Louis asked. Louis Thompson was the local accountant and all-around body builder. Sometimes I was sure he had swallowed too many of those not-too-good-for-your-head steroids. But he was the company quartermaster and as such made himself privy to all-important Royal Order of Whites' discussions. He had also spent the last three days with Frank.
"Just 'cause it suits your stone-hard head to taste blood, don't mean we should," I said.
"There you go again" Frank spit at my feet "trying to sound like us. You're another Mark Twain. You know the words, but you don't know the tune."
The rest of the camp was waiting, so I decided now was not the time to beat Frank with butt end of my .30-06 Springfield. "We can always kill them later."
"What if they have transporters and such?" Frank asked. He watches all that Star Trek sci-fi on TV. He claims it was part of his job as supervisor over at the TV factory in Greeneville. (I claim it was the reason he was recently laid off.) Besides, he says, the Good Book don't say nothing against sci-fi. It's just cowboys in space. A wagon train to the stars. "That's what the show's creator said." I took little comfort in that, particularly since we had two of the space trail hands in our camp and a galactic wagon train of them out there somewhere.
But I don't believe in killing without a good reason, and somehow wrecking a spaceship in Ol' Man Kelsey's woods was not a good enough reason to be knocked off. I wouldn't even shoot a stranded Jew for that, though there are those who would disagree with me.
I turned to Frank. "If they have those transporter devices, then there ain't much we can do. And if we kill them, Lord only knows how many others will come looking for them. After all, you ain't even found their ship yet, so we don't know how many of them there are or where they are. But I figure they might be less likely to attack if we had a couple of theirs with us."
Louis nodded, as if somehow it made sense. That concerned me. In church matters I tended to vote the opposite way he did. But once Louis nodded, Frank did too. Then Frank asked the next logical question: "What do we do with them?"
It's times like these that try a man's authority.
Whatever I may think of it, Star Trek saved my life once. Maybe "saved my life" is too strong. Let's say it kept me from having to put it on the line. You see, my infantry company was about to go into an area that by all reports was festering with VC. An earlier company had passed down the road we were about to travel and they got chewed on like fresh meat to starving dogs.
Our scouts pointed out Charlie's strongholds. They were off in the woods to our left and our right. Unfortunately, we couldn't call in any artillery to drive them out. So it was us going through the gauntlet and them laying in wait.
It was noon. It was hot. And some smart ass with half a hangover suggested we hail the Enterprise for help. I guess he'd seen Star Trek on TV the night before. One of the local stations broadcast American shows all over South Vietnam. TV was one of the things that let us feel we were still part of the world.
Now, I don't know if the captain thought one of his men was a smart ass, as noncoms generally are to their c-o's, but I do know he snatched the phone from the radio man and hailed the Enterprise. No codes. No secret signals to try to fool the VC, who always knew which frequency we used and who always listened in on their stolen transistor radios, making it one big war party line. The captain told the Enterprise to lock on to his coordinates and gave orders to Lt. Sulu to arm the phasers and load the photon torpedoes. He spoke it in plain English just like Kirk did on TV.
The captain waited five minutes.
During that time word buzzed though the company. We sounded almost as loud as the insects that sometimes plagued us. I said we were about to die. Someone whispered we already had.
Next time he spoke, the captain acknowledged that the phasers were armed and photon torpedoes loaded. He waited another five minutes. Man had an unnerving sense of timing.
The sun stood alone directly overhead. Even the blue of the sky felt like it was caving in on us. You wouldn't think ten minutes of waiting would burn up a fellow, but I was afraid if we waited much longer, my body was going to melt down and my soul was going straight to rapture right then and there.
Finally, the captain told Sulu not to fire unless he detected that we were being fired on. Then he ordered us to move out.
We inched down that dirt road. I don't think a man was breathing. I wasn't. If soldiers in boots can tiptoe, we tiptoed. When we were three or four klicks down the road, we all breathed out at once and laughed the silliest goddamn laugh you ever heard from a bunch of grown men in full fighting gear. From then on, we called our captain "Kirk." That's why I can't, to this day, remember his real name. He disappeared at our next battle and was presumed dead. We said he'd beamed out of the war. We only regretted he hadn't taken some of us with him.
"Kirk" was black. The only negro I'll ever call black.
On my orders, we gave the halos the Good Book. Frank brought out a Bible, which he gave to Louis, who gave it to me. As I approached to give it to them, I tried to figure out where their hands were. The most distinguishing feature about them was a white doughnut-shaped glow from the top and a little behind what I took to be their heads. Everything else had a dull translucent sort of sheen that occasionally became opaque. The easiest way to count them was by their radiant tops. One top per alien. Someone yelled: "Halos. We'll call them halos. Just like angels in the Bible wear." There was laughter and for a moment I knew how Captain "Kirk" felt. That frightened me because I had no Enterprise to call upon. Real or imagined. I reached out, tried to hand them the Good Book and back away at the same time. The Bible hit the ground.
When I bent down to pick it up, so did a halo, and I swear he passed through me or I through him. At the very least, we didn't butt heads. I'm not sure anyone else saw. If they did, they didn't say a word. I hesitated. Then I picked up the Bible and tried again. This time the hand-off went smoothly.
The alien turned the book over and over, and even showed it to his partner. They looked as if they were searching for a switch to turn it on. Then the second alien took the book from the first alien and brought it up near his halo. We heard a thump. A pause. Then a second thump.
For a moment, I wondered if the alien was retarded, like the simple-faced boy I saw in a Christian bookstore. The boy walked over to the nearest Bible, picked it off the rack and whacked it against his forehead. He looked over at me and grinned as if he'd just found the meaning of life. He picked up a second Bible and whacked it against his forehead with the same result. He was about to do it with a third one when his parents told him that wasn't how you handled Bibles. They made him put it down and lead him away. I walked over, picked up the book, and resisted an urge to whack it against my forehead. Still, part of me felt he was having more fun with it than I was.
Frank said, "Can't you control them, Commander Opis?"
I tried counting to ten in my high school Spanish as I reminded myself that Frank's problem was the same as America's problem: no damn tolerance.
The halos opened the Good Book, looked at it, then one of them said, "We can't read it. Read us the part about the galactic battle."
Spit came out of Frank's mouth. He swore all the aliens on TV could speak and read English, so why couldn't these. He wondered if these were real aliens. Maybe it was a trick, he said. A government ploy to dupe all of us, capture us and spirit us away to some isolated stretch of Arizona desert. In short order he had the entire camp stirred up. That's when I decided to call in Brother Rick. I sent Louis over to the Church of Gospel Light to lead him to us.
Frank looked at me and said, "See, you can't control these halos. But what should we expect, since you can't even control your wife."
Regina Dean, my wife and Frank's sister, started life as a Pentecostal, traveling the country in a VW microbus. She became a Lutheran shortly before I met her. Then five years into our marriage, she converted to Catholicism. I was in Nam at the time and didn't read about it until six months after it happened. Not that I could've changed things. Eventually she'll embarrass me further by announcing her conversion to Judaism. And one day, Brother Rick believes I'll wake up and find a Stonehenge-like contraption in my front yard. Lord, help me. Men were meant for orders; women chaos.
I ordered Frank to go back out into Ol' Man Kelsey's woods to see if he could find the downed ship. Maybe that would prove once and for all if they were real. I was surprised when he readily agreed. I let him take the two men who had helped him find the first halos.
I posted guards to watch over the halos, who asked if they could rest in one of our tents. I then retired to my tent to wait for theological help. I said a prayer and counted the ways I could kill Frank.
It was ten-thirty when Louis escorted Brother Rick into camp. The oak tree was just then turning into a smoldering pylon. If it had been dead, I think it might still be burning. It was dry enough from the yearlong drought. I'd posted a guard to watch it and told five men to be ready for fire detail. There were enough dry leaves carpeting the ground that one spark could stir up a baze that would send us all running like scalded dogs. Oak leaves are especially good for that. They hang around much too long after they have turned brown. First on the trees, then on the ground. I ought to know. There are always plenty in my front yard this time of year. One fall my son tried burning the yard clear of them. There are still char marks on my house that the paint can't hide.
Brother Rick held up a tablet. It read: "Brother Louis says you have aliens." He calls everybody brother or sister even if they don't directly belong to his flock. He says we all belong to His flock, even those people we don't like.
I nodded. The flap to the tent was pulled back. Brother Rick was leaning inside, slightly stooped over. In the dying light from the oak, it was hard to read the words. I glanced outside and noticed the campfire had been allowed to die. I'd left orders that it should remain lit.
I wormed my way out of the sleeping bag. As a general rule, I don't allow people in my tent. There's no reason for them to see I'm using my son's old Darth Vader sleeping bag. I reached over and pulled an oak leaf loose from my bootlaces. Damn things cling like death.
Brother Rick held up another piece of paper, shaking it so I'd look. "Couple Mexican workers? Illegals?"
I yawned and rubbed my eyes.
"Not exactly illegal," I said. "At least I don't think dropping in from outer space makes you an illegal alien. Am I right?"
Brother Rick turned toward the fire and scribbled something. I put on some clothes and stepped outside. By then, Brother Rick was done.
He held up his sign: "What xxxxxxxx you mumbling about?"
"Space aliens." I paused, then added, "Follow me." Behind the x's I could see "the hell." A little grouchy, I guess. More than likely, Louis woke him. He slept in a small room just off the church and usually didn't get many nighttime visitors. Oh, for the rewards of the simple religious life.
Brother Rick looked at the aliens, walking all around them, studying them up and down. Of course, he didn't say anything. Even seeing the halos couldn't break his vow. He did scribble down that he didn't think they were real. After all, they hadn't contacted him, and if they were peddling Armageddon, he should be the one they dealt with first.
One of the halos pointed at the tablet. "What is he saying?"
I paused, then said, "He says your space suits have a nice glow to them. Angelic."
Brother Rick frowned at me.
Buck, one of the guards, started peppering Brother Rick with questions.
I got in his face. "Shut up, private. You're already on report."
Sam, another guard, snapped to attention. He appeared to have a little more on the ball, though he, too, moved heavy with sleep. There was a scream. I turned. Brother Rick lay on the ground, trying to scurry away on elbows and butt, his tablet nearby and on fire.
"They . . . they shot him with that . . . that heat beam!" Buck said, his rifle cocked and pointed. "Let . . . let me shoot them."
"Stand down," I said.
Buck shifted from foot to foot, then lowered his rifle.
"See to Brother Rick. Get him more paper."
Buck looked at me, then looked at the halos, then looked at me again before moving away. I turned and stepped toward the aliens.
Before I could say anything, they said, "We have not come to be gamed with."
"We do not have time for your toys."
Toys? I thought for a moment, then realized they had transposed their words. I nodded.
"You understand then?"
"Now I do."
"We are agreed then." The aliens began stepping away, in unison. If nothing else, they appeared to be well trained.
"Hey, wait a minute. Where you going?"
They stopped, then turned. "We are agreed. No more toys. The salvation of mankind is to begin now." They turned and walked away. "We will return for the Neals son family. To save them. And if we can't find them, we will take you and these others. They are your family."
Brother Rick was beside me, waving a piece of paper in my face. It said one word: Hey. He pointed at it, then at me, then at the aliens. "Hey," I said. Brother Rick rolled his arm. "Hey," I said again. Then he held up another piece of paper and I said the words: "Salvation's my job." He tapped the word "my" several times. "Salvation's my job."
The halos turned and came back for him. They picked him up and he started to glow, light flaking off him. He tried frantically to scribble something then hold it up, but I couldn't make out what it was, and I couldn't stop them. I reached out to grab something, anything, but when I thought I had something, I couldn't hold onto it. A shock ran through me. Just enough to make me tingle and hesitate. They began moving away. I tried following. If nothing else, I could track them. I knew these woods, even in the dark.
The halos were sticking to the trail. They rounded a rock outcropping, disappearing for a second. When I came around, one of the aliens fired a heat blast at my feet, knocking me back hard against the rock. I hit my head and for a moment felt a sharp pain. I slumped to the ground. By the time I got to my feet, they were gone. All three of them. Like ghosts.
Brother Rick is an educated man. Even more educated than me, and I went a couple years to the University of Tennessee on the G.I. Bill. I found the college campus of the late '60s more deadly than traveling incountry in Nam. People hissed at me when I wore my uniform to class. Somebody even threw a beer bottle at me. Two braless girls stalked me around campus, taunting me with "Baby killer. Baby killer." There was no place I fit in, so I left. Frank and I used to talk about how we were going to go places, see things, do stuff. After I left UT, he teased me, saying I quit because "travel is fetal to prejudice." Truth was, he was happy for the company. He'd flunked out. With no jobs and nothing better to do, we formed the Royal Order of Whites: ROW, Inc. Proud Americans, proud to answer our country's call, though Frank had flunked out of that, too.
Brother Rick, though, tried to change society by being a social worker. That meant he had a four-year degree. But between the horrors he saw in his job and the fact he couldn't take a vow of silence as a government worker, he became a preacher. That, and the call of the Lord. He says there's too much chatter in the world and that everybody needs to take the vow occasionally. He fails to mention that this vow was occasioned by his need to rest his voice from a full Sunday of strenuous preaching. Doc's orders.
You see, our church sits in the middle of Ol' Man Kelsey's woods. First church erected by the early Stooksberry pioneers that civilized this corner of the world. Most of the original log structure still stands, though somewhat updated. Sort of historic you might say, and even though Ol' Man Kelsey gets irritated with us traipsing through his land to get to church, he won't risk offending God by forcing us to move. He also doesn't want to offend Brother Rick, a descendant of the founding Stooksberrys who sold this land to Ol' Man Kelsey's ancestors and whose graves rest up on the ridge next to Gospel Light.
Still, Ol' Man Kelsey won't allow us to run a telephone or any electric lines in, so we don't have a microphone system and even if we had the power, the ruling elders would refuse to get one, just as they refuse to get air conditioning. They say it's because we'd have to get a bigger generator to power all those things, and they are afraid a larger generator wouldn't fit in the cave entrance near the church where the present generator sits. Personally, I think it's because they're cheap. So, when the days are hot and the church doors and windows are open and the twelve floor fans (The twelve apostles we call them.) are going, it sounds more like an airplane hanger than a church and Brother Rick must speak way up. Hence, his first vow of silence came under doctor's orders, though Doc Harmon says the doctor-patient relationship places its own vow of silence on what he can say. It's the only relationship with another human being that does that. Most of them place a vow of chin wagging on at least one of the parties involved. Of course, the root of relationship, my wife says, is relate, and that's all she's trying to do, even while on her religious quest. Sometimes, though, I'd pay real money if she'd only un-relate. Instead, I come out here to Ol' Man Kelsey's woods and prepare for the inevitable. And meet aliens.
Frank stared at me. "What do you mean, they took him?"
He had a mud-encrusted face. Given the drought, I decided it was a disguise and, as always with Frank, overdone. I stared back, trying not to laugh.
"And you didn't follow?" Frank was almost nose to nose with me. He may have been my boss over at the TV factory, but not here.
"Get out of my face."
Frank paused, then backed up. But only slightly. I bit my lip, fighting the urge to see how far back into his head I could shove his nose. The iron-salty taste of blood tinged my mouth. This citizen militia stuff was not all it was cracked up to be. They'd all been cranky from the start. They didn't want to come out here early morning on the Friday after Thanksgiving, especially since I forbid them to bring any TVs or radios or to contact anybody for the ten days we were going to be on maneuvers. And that meant no sneaking away for fast food.
I soon learned the militia movement shouldn't stand in the way of Saturday college football, especially Tennessee football. The rest of the days hadn't been any picnic either. Then, again, they weren't supposed to be. When the sun came up in seven hours, it would be the start of the tenth day. If we survived as a unit till then, it would be the tenth wonder of the world.
"Did you follow them?"
"I'll ask the questions here," I said. "Did you find the ship?"
"We're wasting precious time," Frank said.
"Then sit down and answer my question."
After thinking for a moment, Frank stepped to a chair and sat down, but not before one of the men with him brushed it off. After he sat down, unfolding his long thick frame into the director's chair, he still took his time answering. He slouched a little and crossed his right leg over his left. Next he steepled his fingers. Then he looked at me. Finally his lips formed the word. "No."
"No, sir," I said.
"That's right." He smiled.
I looked at his acting aide-de-camp and ordered him out of my tent. Having Frank in here was more than enough. Grizzard was a short, furry man with a questionable heart and an equally questionable tire and autoparts store. He glanced at Frank then left. They had both charged into my tent upon returning. Luckily, I had already hidden my sleeping bag.
"You running your own army now Frank?"
He looked me straight in the eye before he replied. "Somebody better. You're not fit to command. Medals or no medals. This fighting force made a mistake when they made you commander. All you even do is drill us. We been out here ten days doing maneuvers. Another McClellan's all you are. Drill, drill, drill."
"Civil War's over Frank."
"And we haven't even fought a battle, hero." He hissed out the last word. Sometimes I think it sticks in his craw that I have a Purple Heart and all he has is a deferment as a near-sighted, overweight 4F.
"Who would you have us fight? Our families? Our wives?" I pointed to a map on the table. "There ain't a negro for forty miles. Last Jew died twenty years ago."
"What about them halos? Brother Rick must've called out for help. You couldn't follow the sound of his voice?"
"Brother Rick's on one of his silences."
"And he didn't break it?"
"He was probably too frightened." I sat against the table edge and crossed my arms. "Tell me where the ship is."
He glanced away. "We ... we couldn't find it."
I nodded. "I see."
"And you lost Brother Rick. All by yourself." He stared at me.
I didn't look away. I had searched. I had others search. I still had them searching.
He nodded, then smirked.
We stared at each other for a few moments. My mother-in-law had some stubborn children -- my wife among them -- but I think she had Frank tailor-made. He'd argue with a cedar fence post. Or the whole fence row.
I stretched and turned toward the table. "This is getting us nowhere. We aren't finding Brother Rick." It was almost midnight and I found myself wishing this was all a dream and that I could wake up and start my sleep over. I leaned over the map. "Where did you look?"
"You're unfit to command," he said.
"And you are?"
"I've seen it done."
No doubt on his battery-powered TV that I confiscated. I was going to say something -- the words were on my lips -- when I felt a sting on my shoulder. Then another on the back of my head. Any others I don't remember.
Despite what you heard about us on TV, integration is the reason we founded ROW. ROWing the ship of state together; that's our motto. The right plan for America; that's our creed. Anyone born in this country and born again in the royal spirit of God and Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior can join. We don't hold no truck with earthly royalty.
We're also royal because we named our group for Royal Earle Stooksberry, local Civil War hero and distant ancestor of Brother Rick. Some say Royal Earle was on both sides of the War of Northern Aggression. Others say he had an evil twin who voted like most people around here (though we rarely admit it), to stay with the Union.
When Frank and I first formed ROW, we joked about the naughty possibility of a dark side to Royal Earle. It fit in with the seventies. Back then, ROW was an informal drinking club that met every Friday night. First at my place, if my folks were away, or Frank's, if his were gone. That was how I met Regina Dean. ROW began meeting on weekends for hunting trips or fishing trips. Then for cookouts and Christmases. For a while, our newly formed families were invited to some of our gatherings. Then we formed bylaws and created dues. We elected officers and kept minutes. We started doing good works in the community. After twenty years of living in the South, I finally felt at home. Nobody in ROW teased me because I talked funny. Nobody cared.
Then came the '80s and the ACLU. First a women's group, then a minority group tried to force us into the "new realities." They lawyered us into bankruptcy. We went outlaw, meeting in secret, drinking in the woods. It wasn't long before we were branded "vigilante," even "militant" by the press. Sixty Minutes did a piece on us. By 1990, we realized integration was a rope meant to hang the white boys. The country had gone from the United States is to the United States are. We elected a new type of leader. A military one: me.
Now Frank was threatening to undermine all we had built with ROW, simply because he didn't like me ordering him around. But that's what a leader's supposed to do. That's what he did to me as my boss over at the TV factory, until he got laid off a couple weeks ago. Here I treat him just the same as I treat all the others.
I'd always thought blows that knocked people out were another one of these TV gimmicks. Something that happened just before a commercial. Maybe Frank just got lucky. Life copying TV. I guess I could be thankful he hadn't learned it through an NEA grant. Waking up tied up and dangling from a tree limb told me something had been successful, and it probably wasn't me. The pain in my head, down my neck, and into my shoulders tended to back that up. I felt like somebody had tenderized me.
It took a minute to get my bearings. There was no fire, though there was a strong, stinking odor in the air. There were no tents, no militia, and no remains of a camp. It appeared I was hanging all alone in the night. Even the stars had abandoned me, taking refuge behind clouds. There were no sounds. Not even from frogs or cicada. Stillness and quiet. My breathing was the most movement I could detect.
Then a light shined on me. A single bright beam, like a solitary car headlight. Next came several more. Finally a voice said: "Behold the angel of the ungodly secular liberal humanists. Behold and let the light shine upon his open guilt."
A low laugh ran through the unfamiliar arrangement of trees nearby. They must of dragged me to another part of Ol' Man Kelsey's Woods.
"Frank? Is that you?" I heard the rope pop, then felt my weight jerk the line down slightly. I looked up, but couldn't see a damn thing. I wondered if the rope had slipped over a limb knot. I glanced around and managed to find that the other end was tied around a tree trunk. "Frank, if that's you, as soon as I get down from here, you've had it."
"Behold, my fellow minutemen. See how the angel of humanism cannot stand up to our godly ways. See how he answers to the smell of sulfur, the stench of the godless aliens. Taken from his own bag of cheap tricks." It was Frank all right. He stepped forward and held a stick high in the air, its end smoldering with burning sulfur. In the other hand he held high my rucksack full of illegal fireworks I'd been using for fishing and war game exercises. "He claims he would use these to make us men. Instead, they were used to keep us boys in servitude to him." He dropped the sack and kicked it into the dark. "Tonight, we break our chains."
Frank was putting on that fancy speech he does when he's trying to impress somebody, usually a woman. I used to think it was because he was smarter than the rest of us, a self-taught philosopher. After all, he could quote Henry David Thoreau: "Most men's wives lead them to quiet desperation." Now I know better. The quotes not even right, though true. Unfortunately those about to follow him, and I guessed there were several, hadn't yet learned that Frank could throw up a good line. He orated a few more minutes, going on about my inability to command, to deal with the halos, to find Brother Rick, and to drive this new breed of aliens from "our lives, our homes, and our sacred community." By the time he was done I was also personally responsible for the loss of the war and the fall of South Vietnam, the bloating of the federal government and the deficit, and the spread of AIDS beyond the homosexuals.
My hands were tied behind my back. They throbbed and were probably swollen. But I could bend my fingers enough to clamp them around Frank's neck and hold on until they were functioning and he was dead. Brother-in-law or no brother-in-law, the law would forgive me even if my wife wouldn't. A drop of sweat ran down my forehead, curved around the side of my nose, and into my right eye. I blinked and shook my head, trying to turn it into the sudden breeze. The air felt already burdened with moisture as if rain was coming soon.
I heard the clatter of men checking their weapons. I heard engines grunting and rear bumpers scrapping the ground as the cars backed off whatever makeshift ramps had been constructed so they could make a spectacle of me. For a moment light streamed just below my boots, dust and exhaust roiling through the beams. Then the beams began dying out.
There was a pause, then he replied from somewhere in the dark to my left. "You can call me colonel."
Somebody reached up and hit my right ankle hard with the butt of his rifle.
"Call him colonel, pig."
The pain was sharp, providing a counterpoint to the dull throbbing of my hands. "Why didn't you just burn me at the stake, Colonel Pig."
"Colonel." The man hit me again. Harder, but this time on the edge of my boot heel, enough to start me swinging.
"Not enough time," Frank said, still somewhere in the dark. "Maybe later. Right now we're going to hunt down some illegal aliens."
I heard footsteps on leaves and underbrush, the muttering of voices, and I saw a few flashlights and glowing ends of cigarettes as the army of ROW moved out under new leadership. I even heard a transistor radio playing the oldies but goodies. "Ol' Man Kelsey won't like this. You driving cars in here. You'll have to renegotiate the contract."
"Ol' Man Kelsey won't like this," Frank said and laughed. And everybody else laughed as they moved away, some in cars, some on foot, all mingling into the woods. And underneath the laughter there was the steady crunch of December leaves, sounding like applause. Like the end of some bad TV scene. Fade to black.
It did get darker and quieter as they moved away.
Now, time for a commercial. Damn, I watch too much TV.
The acrid smell of burning tobacco reached my nose and made me want one. It reminded me of sweat-filled nights in foxholes in the Da Nang province of Nam. Dug into the muck, waiting out the downpour, waiting for Charlie. I wasn't cool or lucky. Just cold and forgotten in some Asian rain hell. That war had driven me to take up smoking and now this fiasco was driving me to want to take it up again. But first I had to get free. Then I had to . . . .
I kept swinging.
It was slow going at first. Kicking my legs backwards and forwards. Pain shot up from my ankle, throbbing like my hands. I guessed I was dangling from the lower branch of a young tall maple, and if I could swing enough----
I hit the trunk and bounced off. The next time I was ready and shoved off the tree trunk. I felt the rope slide down the branch and the branch begin to bend. Then snap. The small limbs on the branch began breaking. Snap. More. Snap, snap. More. Snap, snap, snap.
The end of the branch broke and I fell, landing hard on my sore ankle, tumbling over onto my side. I was out of the tree, but not exactly free. Or out of danger. Not only were my hands still tied behind me, but rope was wound tight round my chest like an anaconda. My legs were also tied just above my ankles. Somebody must've thought I was the reincarnation of Houdini.
I wiggled across the ground like a sidewinder until I came upon Frank's stick. He'd dropped it to lead the crusade. I worked myself around until I felt the dying heat on my hands. Then I moved as close as I could, burning the heal of my hand once, then bringing the rope to the heat and waiting. The rope around my chest was cheap bailing twine. It would burn easier then any synthetic stuff. Frank certainly didn't waste any of the good rope on me. "Scum."
It took a little time, but once I was free, I rooted around in the dark until I stumbled across my rucksack. I found it in a wild, thorned blackberry thicket. I didn't know what time it was because my watch broke when I fell on it. A piece of the crystal was imbedded in my side. There was a small rip in my shirt and blood oozed from a cut near my left lower rib. What injuries I had escaped in Nam I was getting here.
I glanced toward the heavens. The stars and the moon were still tucked under clouds like frightened children waiting for the end of the scary story. I certainly could use a Captain Kirk. Real or imagined. I could also use a few good phasers. And a good meal. My stomach was getting insubordinate, and it wasn't only from a lack of food. Ten days without a decent meal can incite mutiny.
I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. It told me I wasn't going to have too much pain from my ribs. One small good thing. I shouldered the rucksack and began my search for the Armageddon in Ol' Man Kelsey's woods.
As kids in Ol' Man Kelsey's woods, me, Frank, Louis, just about all of us, even Brother Rick, had been nearly every imaginable character: cave men, the Three Musketeers, the real first men to land on the moon, even alien invaders from outer space. When we were teenagers, we all swore he owned half the world, the undeveloped, seamy, mysterious half. And he wasn't too fond of sharing it. He became everything from the Sheriff of Nottingham to the evil Soviet Bear to an incarnation of the devil himself chasing us around the woods with his pitchfork.
Even now with the contract I'd signed and the money we paid for the right to train here, we were sure that some evening Ol' Man Kelsey was going to come out and steer his ancient John Deere tractor over our tents as he swung his pitchfork about, commanding us like God to leave his Garden of Eden.
Ol' Man Kelsey was more like Ancient Man Kelsey these days, tending to misplace people, places, and dates, mending his life together the same way his dead wife had patched his coveralls. Since her death two years ago, his life had become more frayed. For a while, the ladies from Gospel Light tried to care for him, but he tossed them out of his ramshackle farm house, saying he'd have no truck with charity: either getting it or giving it. So though I thought about going to ask for his help, or to use his phone, I decided it would be best if I handled this myself. After all, I'd hate to lose the Garden a third time.
I felt in my pockets for matches. They'd taken my wallet, car keys, money, and anything else they felt I might not need as a prisoner of war. In the bottom corner of my left pocket I found a crumbled, nearly used-up matchbook. Two matches, and the striking surface almost gone. That's all I had to ignite my counterattack.
Even in the undeveloped world things change. I knew my way around these woods, but without light I was having a hell of a time navigating. I had relearned part of the area since ROW started training here, but there were still acres I knew nothing about. Or things that were in one place that I was sure should've been in another. Since my own son never took an interest in sneaking out here, I only had my childhood memories as a guide. Of course, it would be just like Ol' Man Kelsey to move a few boulders and trails and hills around to confuse us. Some in town said he had buried treasure out here. Certainly a still. I hadn't found either.
I took to the top of a small ridge. A breeze rode up and over me. In the distance I saw the dull flash of lightning. I stopped a moment to be sure. Heat lightning most likely. It had been a hot, dry fall, even into the Christmas season. I ran my hand across my forehead. I wasn't sure how I was going to find them. Or what exactly I was going to do when I did. I said a short prayer to our Lord to guide me. The words of the 23rd Psalm played through my head: Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear---
A sound broke my meditating. A tromping noise coming up the ridge. I crouched behind a clump of young birch. I felt around for something and my hand came upon a rock. I tried pulling it up, but the damn thing wouldn't budge, so I reached over and tried with both hands. The rock came loose, but it was too heavy to throw. I slipped off my rucksack and backed a little ways down the ridge. I rolled the rock onto the front of the rucksack, slipped the arm straps over my shoulders, and with the rucksack hanging beneath my belly, tried dragging the rock up the hill. I reached the top and heaved the rock over. It started tumbling, thumping the hillside. The tromping turned toward it. I scurried back to the birch trees.
Suddenly there was a popping sound. Then another. And another. I flattened out against the ground.
Pop, pop, pop. Slowly, I began realizing the sounds weren't real arms' fire. They were more like cap pistols going off. Pop, pop, pop. Flashes from his cap pistols and occasional ones by the lightning allowed me to make out the figure of Barry B. Moose. That was his name. He'd been in the army in the '60s, same as me. Different station, though. He got to go to peaceful Germany. The U.S. Army even allowed him to re-up, which led me to wonder who was brighter, Moose or HQ.
Soon, the cap rolls in his gun ran out. He put the pistols back in the holsters he'd bought while in the army. With his re-up bonus he'd wanted to buy real Colt .45s, but the company commander told him no. Before he got the final word, Moose (nobody called him Barry) kept cap pistols in the holsters. "To keep the leather ready," he told people. He was still "keeping the leather ready."
After his ammo ran out, Moose said: "Who goes there?"
I heard rustling, then I heard: "Damn."
He'd dropped his next supply of cap paper. Probably in a thick growth of poison ivy. Ol' Man Kelsey's woods was full of it. If I lived for another week I'd be squirming from it.
The breeze and lightning picked up. I asked God to spare us the much-needed rain. War in the mud is pure hell, especially at night. In Nam I sacrificed my toothbrush to keep my M16 clean. Here, I didn't want to lose my two good matches to the muck. I felt a drop of rain. Then another. And another. Then it quit. The wind and lightning continued. I looked skyward: Thanks. But I knew my time was limited. Moose was my only hope.
I stood up and said, "Moose, I'm your prisoner."
He looked at me. Next he looked at his pistol. Then he looked at the poison ivy. "Help me find my caps?"
Despite having no light and the hands of two but the brains of one, we found his cap paper. I found it by cutting my finger on the edge of it. It was almost brittle to the touch. Moose must've had a collection of it. Stuff as old as his pistols. As he was loading it, I asked, "You taking me to your new camp?"
"Sure," he said, holstering his piece. "This way." He started down the ridge. I never put Moose on guard duty. That was one decision no one questioned, not even Frank, so I figured he must be getting cocky if he'd send Moose out on patrol, alone.
"Hold it right there, buster," a voice said. A light blinded me before I had a chance to make out who it was. "Put your hands out where I can sees them. And no funny business, or I'll ace yous both where yous stands."
"Hey. He's my prisoner," Moose said. "He said so."
I put up one hand, trying to block the light. "Shine that damn thing elsewhere." I couldn't place the voice. It sounded unnatural. I thought this might be another halo.
"Shut up," the voice said. "Or you'll be wearing cement galoshes. Now put them up. Both of yous."
"Who are you?" Moose asked. "You ain't one of us."
"Hey, Einstein, one for yous. Now, put your hands up, or eat lead." Bullets kicked up the forest undergrowth around us.
In an odd way, I felt comforted having a second guard. With an alien, we might actually make it to the others. Then a second light came on and I caught a glimpse of the new guard. It was a different type alien, not a halo. He looked like a bush in a double-breasted suit, a charcoal gray fedora dipped low over his head, if he had a head. And in what looked like branches, he held what looked like a distant relative of a Tommy gun. In a third branch or maybe it was a tail, he held the light.
"Kill the light," the bush said to someone behind him. "They can see me."
"So nit wit, we's not supposed to show ourselves lest we have to. Blow wise?"
Moose turned toward me. "Is this a gangster show?"
I didn't know how to answer his question, or explain to myself what was happening. I hesitated for a minute, during which time the two bushes bickered at each other. As soon as they were in a lull, I asked, "Who are you?"
There was a pause, then the second bush said, "We are 'The Untouchables.'" He said the last two words like a TV announcer, as best as a bush could. Low whistles and clicks were part of his speech, as if words were scratching him as they came out.
"'The Untouchables.' A rough translation into your lingo."
"This TV?" Moose asked. "We on America's Funniest Bloopers or something?"
"Or something, Moose."
I wasn't sure what these aliens werelooking for, but my arms were getting tired and my ankle was throbbing. As long as I was moving, it was okay. I took a chance and lowered my arms. How Moose was able to keep his up amazed me. But after tonight it was going to take much more than that to exceed my amazement threshold.
"Hey pally. Put 'em back up."
"Can't. I have low blood sugar. If I put them back up I'll die. And if I die, I can't show you where the camp is." My stomach growled.
The aliens talked again for a few more moments. During that time, Moose said "Me too" and lowered his arms.
The first alien turned back to me. "We have no paper on this low blood sugar thing."
I felt like saying "Take my word for it," but I didn't know how these "Untouchables" would take to humor.
One of the Untouchables moved toward me. I took a step backwards.
"Hey pally. Chili out. I'm only taking a gander at yous."
I wasn't sure exactly what he meant. I didn't respond and he didn't repeat it. As he stepped closer, I saw that the leaves of this bush alien looked like American holly leaves, same mitten shape, same needle-sharp tips. The bush alien stepped closer. My right foot moved back, but I held my ground. Then I got a whiff of the Untouchable: he stank like road kill left in the middle of asphalt in the middle of July in the middle of the day. My stomach quit grumbling. I now knew why they were called "The Untouchables." "Rough translation" was right.
The alien tipped his fedora back, then said, "Does this mean you are not well?"
"Is your ... head ... loose? Is that also a sign of low blood sugar?""
"Maybe. You can get light headed."
"I'm light headed," Moose said, raising his hands again.
I wanted to tell Moose he was always light headed, but he tended to get angry when others laughed at his expense and he couldn't understand why. That gave me an idea. I turned toward Moose, but a bush stepped between us.
"Over here, pally. Yous two say too much to each other."
He brushed against me, trying to shove me back. His needles poked into me. I was deciding if I could take him, when the other one yelled: "Get down! Incoming!"
The bushes scurried to the lowest spot they could find and pulled up close to each other, curling into little balls. One of them had forgot to turn off his light, so I saw exactly where they were.
Moose rushed over to me. He grabbed me, hoisted me over to a nearby fallen tree and we hunkered down behind it.
"Who could be bombing us?" he asked.
"Hell if I know."
We waited. And waited. And waited some more. The only thing that ever blew by us was a five-minute stiff breeze. And after it was gone, the bushes scurried over and ordered us to get up.
As we stood, I said, "Moose, they've been talking about you. They're laughing at you over there. They say you are light headed all the time. Can't you hear them? They are right over there saying it. They are just testing you with this bomb scare and they say you are dumb enough to fall for it."
Moose looked at me. I even think the bushes looked at me.
I nodded. "That's what they're saying. Laugh, laugh, laugh. Moose is light headed. Laugh, laugh, laugh."
Moose turned toward the bushes. "You laughing at me!" He stepped toward them. "You laughing at me!" He charged them.
I turned and ran in the other direction, grabbing my rucksack. My ankle was swollen, making my running a one-leg stiff-legged affair. I heard yowling. I wanted to turn and look, but I didn't want to be stopped by what I might see. When we were growing up, we'd once convinced Moose a tree was laughing at him and he tried to tackle it. He separated his shoulder and the tree still tilts northerly. Unless they shot him, this time he was probably going to need a drawer full of band-aids and bottle or two of tincture of iodine.
I made it to the top of the ridge and my leg gave out. I collapsed and rolled part of the way down the other side, coming to stop against a rotten log. I lay there for a few moments, gathering my bearings and my wits. What was happening here?
I was never one to believe all that mumbo jumbo about life on other planets and UFOs and people being sucked up into spaceships that looked like giant Hoovers. I thought E.T. and Close Encounters were clear attacks on good Christian patriotic values. I waved a picket sign outside the theater when both of them came to Greeneville. If I'd been the government, I'd have tried to put the lid on it too, just like in Close Encounters. I wouldn't want the nightly news telling me aliens had swooped down and sucked up my loved ones. Besides, I wasn't convinced we'd made it to the moon in '69 and all that crap about the Earth being a tiny oasis in the vastness of hostile space. I think all of it was Jewish, Hollywood hype. Even Kennedy's challenge. After all, he was Catholic for God's sake. That's only one step removed from Jewishness.
I struggled to a sitting position, leaned against the log and glanced around for my rucksack. No, I never believed any of it. But now I had halo aliens to the left of me, bush aliens to the right, and no army to fight them. Plus, I had no idea what I was going to do. I looked toward heaven and prayed for guidance. "I know, Lord, you don't put burdens on people that they can't handle, but I don't know how I'm going to handle this one. Give me a sign. Please?"
I felt the sharp points of cool metal against the base of my skull. "I'll give you a sign, boy. What you doing on my land?"
I started to turn, but felt the cool metal pressed a little harder.
"What you doing here? You government? Speak the truth boy. The truth." He shoved the metal just a little more. If the points hadn't broken the skin, they were about to.
"Mr. Kelsey, it's me, Brad Opis's boy Wilbur. Remember, we signed an agreement so we could use the land for training exercises."
"You're out of your zone boy. That agreement don't cover this territory."
"True enough. But I think we have bigger things to worry about." I paused, waiting for a question that never came. Then I wondered how to say my words before the tines of his pitchfork wedded themselves to my spine. "First, Mr. Kelsey, I'm very sorry for being out of my zone, but we've lost a man out this way and we've fanned out trying to find him."
"You're lying. I been watching. We're being invaded."
"Hell yes, I know. What you think I am, senile? They come three year ago, messing up TV and radio reception in my house, just as I had the TV turned to channel three with the screen all dark and sound down low, waiting to see if that damn tornado was going to strike."
"Three years ago?"
"That's right. Been coming here about as long as you has."
I couldn't believe that. "What tornado?"
"Hell if I know. Since I read that in an old Popular Mechanics, ain't one never struck down near here so my screen ain't never turned white. I keep hoping if I left my TV tuned that way long enough one would. But these new aliens, they come swooping down and messing everything up. Now, I can't even get Wheel of Fortune. You know how frustrating that is?"
I didn't know how to answer that one. I finally decided on "Maybe."
He pulled back the pitchfork. "Get up. We got a job to do. We got to find Neals son."
I got up and turned toward him. "They ask you too, huh?"
"Them aliens first spoke to me over the TV and asked if I personally knew Neals son? They has some notion this Neals son is important. Kept babbling on about the fate of human history being decided by Neals son." Ol' Man Kelsey waved his hand up and down once like a sheer curtain caught in a sudden gust of air. "Anyway, I told them there weren't no Neals son round here. Never was as far as I could recollect. But that don't seem to satisfy them none. They just kept saying they got to get this Neals son out of the way before the big invasion."
"Out of the way?"
Ol' Man Kelsey nodded. "What they said."
"You mean rescue?" We began moving down the ridge.
"Sounded more like do away with. Or capture. At first, they just asked, but lately they been down right rude about it. They think he's important."
"Like a general?"
"More like a god."
"I'll be damned if any bush-looking alien's going to get a clean chance at a human. But we got to find a Neals son and warn him."
"We also have to find my men. A bunch of white glowing aliens may be holding them prisoners. I know they got Brother Rick."
Ol' Man Kelsey turned his head toward me. "How'd that happen?"
I explained as we headed toward his still. He said he had some extra supplies there we might find helpful.
Ol' Man Kelsey's extra supplies consisted of matches to light his still, gallons of extra whiskey put back in case of emergencies, and some kerosene. He kept it all in a cave near his still. The cave was part of a whole system that ran through the limestone under his woods. Several people had disappeared in that system.
I wasn't sure how any of these extra supplies was going to help. He had no guns or ammo.
"Anna Mae made me sell them all off after the time I accidentally blew the toe off my boot. Said she didn't want to be practicing no first aid on an ol' coot."
"And you obeyed?"
"That's what them wedding vows say: 'love, honor, and obey.'"
"I wouldn't do that," I said, stiffening my posture. "My wife couldn't make me give up my guns."
Ol' Man Kelsey nodded. I heard his fingers rasping lightly across the stubble on his chin. "Give it time, boy. Give it time."
"Okay. Where's your gun now?"
"I . . . ah . . . I . . . that's a long story." I turned to packing matches and a bottle or two of corn whiskey in my rucksack. "We better get going."
I had never lost a command before. It was a strange feeling to have that power, then suddenly have it taken away. Can't say that I like the feeling, though there was something freeing about only having to deal with myself. But since I'd hooked up with Ol' Man Kelsey, I wasn't even getting that pleasure. His wife may have been bossy, but he was no slouch.
"I'm looking for a little cooperation here," I said.
"Me, too. So do it my way."
We headed toward where he believed the center of trouble was. How he knew, I didn't know and he didn't say. He simply had me climb on his tractor and away he went.
"Won't this attract attention to us?"
The motor clanged as if the moving parts were empty pots and pans banging into each other.
"What?" he said. "Speak up. I can't----"
The tractor moved uphill and even his yelling was drowned out. I didn't repeat myself.
We bumped along what passed for a trail. One of the headlights on the tractor worked, the other one flickered. We were traveling extremely close to a dried streambed and the drop off was none too appealing. I tapped Ol' Man Kelsey's shoulder and pointed. He nodded and kept on driving.
We came near the bottom of a ridge and he turned off the lights and killed the engine. He pointed. "They is over on the other side."
I blinked a couple of times. The light from the tractor had faded, but I had been concentrating on it so hard that my eyes weren't easily adjusting back to the darkness. Except there wasn't darkness. There was a glowing from over top of the ridge. And sound too. It drifted down like a murmur.
The longer I stared, the more disturbed the ground looked. First, I did not remember the ridge, and as my eyes adjusted to it I realized the ground had a plowed-up look to it. Trees lay on their sides as if they'd been knocked over by an angel's bowling ball. Leaves and undergrowth were the same way. The ground also looked less packed together, as if I might sink in as soon as I stepped on it.
"Ready to attack?" he asked.
"What? Attack who?" I climbed down from the tractor.
"The heathen enemy from outer space."
"I think we'd better scout out the situation first."
"Already done that."
"Then we'll do it again."
"You'll get caught." He paused, then added, "Just like a little while ago. They got humans working with them now. They got Moose."
I looked at him as best I could in the dim glow. "How the hell do you know so damn much?"
He tapped his brain.
"How the hell do you know they're here?"
He tapped his brain again.
"Get down off that tractor and lie to me like a man."
"I ain't lying."
"They got you working for them too?"
He said nothing, but he did get off the tractor. He stepped toward me and planted a finger squarely in the middle of my chest. "Listen, smart ass." He pushed harder. "I don't work for them." He lifted the finger then rammed it in even harder. "They don't own me. It does, though, cost money to keep this place up. To pay the taxes on it. And the insurance. And everything else. You think you're the only band of merry men I rent training ground space to?"
He punched his finger into my chest one last time.
"I mean nothing. I'm saying, I've been renting space to aliens for pert near as long as I've been renting it to you. I expected nothing would ever come of it. Just as I expected you and your group would never actually get around to doing any mercenary work. You're all a bunch of kitchen mercenaries."
"That's what I said." He paused to let it sink in, then told me how things had changed the night one ship of halo trainees crashed into his woods, which alerted the bush alien group he'd been renting space to. Then we had to stumble upon a couple of halo aliens and that drew us into it. All of us training for impending doom.
"How many groups you renting to?"
He paused for a minute, then shrugged his shoulders, "Can't say and can't find my ledger. Anna Mae used to take care of that." His eyes grew a little misty and picked up that far-away look. Then he snapped back to the here and now. "We've wasted a good ten, fifteen minutes yammering on. Soon, they'll come over the hill looking for me, if I don't start the tractor up and they hear me moving away."
It was then I realized he'd wanted the aliens to hear him. As long as they thought it was him, they'd leave him alone.
"What do you want me to do?"
"Get rid of them." He climbed back up on his tractor.
"You and your bottle rockets." He reached into a pouch and handed me a couple of mason jars of white lightning. "Halos don't like this stuff. Found out after they ruined my TV reception by crash landing here. Sprinkle some on you. And if that doesn't work, drink it, then breathe on them. If nothing else, it'll take the sting out of being invaded."
"Where you going?"
"I got a few bushes to take care of. They and the halos don't get along. But the halos don't know they're here. Unfortunately, them bushes do. And they both know about your group. That's too powerful a mix to let lie. I had to take a hand.
"Now, listen here. Once you freed your men, get to my house. I may have another job for you." He started the engine.
"What about the Neals son family?"
I cupped my hands around my mouth: "Neals son family?"
"I ain't rented to no nearby families. This ain't no picnic grounds." Ol' Man Kelsey turned the tractor around and moved away.
I picked up my rucksack of fireworks and firewater and headed up the ridge. When I reached the top, I looked over. Down the other side, in a clearing, sat most of my men in a circle, heads turned upward. Smatterings of blue danced across their faces, reflected in their eyes. Shining forth from a giant-screen TV was a rerun of The Brady Bunch.
"What they hell."
"We do not know how this devise works," one of the halos said. I could barely hear him over the canned laughter. "Tell us." The halo approached Brother Rick.
Another halo came in view, holding a rifle, George Grizzard in front of him. He shoved the auto man toward the halo and Brother Rick.
"Tell him to explain," the halo said to Grizzard.
"Then you explain."
"You mean a race as advanced as yours don't know how TV works?" Grizzard asked.
"It is a weapon of some type. Correct?"
"And there is a plant here where these weapons are made. Correct?"
"They is not weapons."
"You use large amounts of energy on them. We only use large amounts of energy on our weapons and spaceships. We have been at war for approximately 13,756 of your seasons. They must be weapons. How do they work?"
"I don't know." Grizzard looked around. Probably looking for Frank, the big TV assembly line supervisor. Frank, the new leader. Frank, the big, new traitor. Well, get yourself out of this one by yourself, Georgie Porgie.
I glanced around; I didn't see Frank.
"Every human home has one. Correct?"
"Guess so," Grizzard said. "But, it's entertainment. Not a weapon."
"And this Neals son family controls who lives and dies through these weapons?"
"Neals son? I don't know nothing about no Neals son controlling it."
"Does not this Neals son can---"
Something rustled the dried leaves nearby. I ducked my head below the edge of the ridge, then glanced to my right. It could be animal. It could be human. Hell, it could be alien. Then the rustling spoke to me: "Sergeant . . . Sergeant York, is that you?"
The voice was barely above a whisper and I still couldn't make out who or what it was. Nobody had called me "York" since Nam. The last person to call me that was Captain Kirk.
"York, you never could sneak up on anything. Make too damn much noise. That's why you always lead the frontal assaults. You'd scare the hell out of a herd of Black Angus."
And I'd always thought it was because some officer, even the Captain, didn't like me. This sarge always got the dirty work. Like now.
"Who are you?" I reached for the rusty pocket knife I'd picked up at Ol' Man Kelsey's hideaway. "I'm armed."
"A sure sign you ain't." Captain Kirk turned on a penlight and shined the beam up on his black face. It was grayer, more lined, and it sagged in a few places, but it was Captain Kirk. I was glad to see him, though I told myself I shouldn't be.
"Why the hell aren't you dead?"
"No time for reunions, Sarge." He turned off the light and moved closer. He stank from sweating heavy the way all negroes do. "You been out here long?"
"Not too long. Why?"
"Because, Sergeant York, you stink."
"Well, Captain, you don't smell so fresh yourself."
Captain Kirk let out a tight, short laugh. He stuck out a hand. I looked at it. I hesitated. Then I moved my hand up and took it.
"Good," Kirk said. "Now that that's out of the way, let's rescue our men."
"'Our'? You have men here, too?"
Damn. How many mercenary groups had Ol' Man Kelsey rented space to? "How long?"
"Three, maybe four years. I didn't originally belong, but they were looking for a leader and when I heard where they were training, I thought it might be a way to visit an old comrade at arms."
An old comrade at arms? What would a negro want with seeing me? As if my burden weren't already great enough with my wife, my son, my men and all, how was I ever going to explain this? I glanced skyward. This must be one of those personal mysteries we all live with. One of those You give each of us Lord to keep us on our toes. I shook my head. Sometimes, Lord, sometimes.
Kirk touched his chin. "You're right, Sergeant. Still no moon or stars out. I always hated night attacks where there was no starlight to make you realize there was something greater than you and what you were doing. I always figured if I died on a night like this, my soul would bounce off the cloud cover and I'd be condemned to walk the earth forever."
"Going New Age on me, Captain?"
Kirk stared at me, but said nothing.
We cussed and discussed several ways to attack, took stock of our weapons, and hammered out a final plan. At one point he tried to pull rank on me, but I reminded him that he and I were no longer in the U.S. Army and that I had an army of my own, so he had no right to "order me around. I wasn't his nigger."
"What's that, Sergeant?"
"Nothing, sir." My body stiffened, as if being called to attention. The words came out without thinking.
"So, why isn't your army following you, Sergeant?"
I hesitated. "Why ain't your army following you?"
We stared at each other for a few moments. His eyes were set hard and his lip twitched, just like it had in Nam. I could tell he was ready to leave. That look was on his face when somebody had yelled: "Call up the Enterprise, captain, and order up a phaser barrage." Then I saw a big grin come over him. As his teeth were coming into full exposure, his penlight failed and we had darkness between us again, tinged ever so slightly by the eerie glow of blue seeping over the ridge.
"I'm going to be your nigger." The words came at me from the darkness. I could barely see him, let alone see his lips move. When I didn't say anything, he added, "Isn't that what you always wanted?"
It took us an hour, and as we started up the ridge, I tried to explain that his being my "nigger" was not what "I always wanted."
"You mean any ol' nigger would do."
"Hell, no, Captain---"
"We's civilians now, Massa York. You don't has to call me Cap'n no more."
I was still "York." He was still "Kirk." I was mad at him for being here. For being alive. I was mad at myself for being rebelled against. And now to get my people back, I had to rely on him. I just about asked him who gave him permission to beam back into my life. The Good Lord certainly was testing me.
I tried Ol' Man Kelsey's matches. The heads cracked and fell away from the paper stems, one or two catching fire before breaking away.
Kirk laughed. He reached into his pocket and tossed me his lighter. It said U.S. Army.
I glared at him as he headed on up the hill. I wondered how Ol' Man Kelsey had overcome his dislike for negroes. As a kid in the '60s, I used to see him spouting off at Tinsley's soda counter, waving the newspaper over his head: Damn nigger this. Damn nigger that. "If they want integration," he barked inside the five and dime, "let them get back to Africa and integrate with they own."
All that talk and marching and protesting for integration and equality then, and now all I read or see or hear is how they want their equality, but they want to be separate from us.
I poked Kirk in the back with the stick rifle we had fashioned out of a maple branch. "Well, go back to Africa, then."
"Ssshhh," I said. "You'll wake the invaders."
"I thought you said they'd be repairing their ship."
The blue light escaping over the rim had dimmed. We fought against sinking too deep into the loosely packed dirt as we climbed to the edge, reached up and over the top, and found all my men asleep.
Kirk stopped and turned to me. "What the hell's going on?"
"I don't know." I moved slightly over the rim's edge and looked at my men, bundled up in what looked like sleeping bags, only their faces peaking out, except these sleeping bags didn't look like anything the U.S. Army or the U.S. economy ever issued. The bags were light blue and glowing.
"Hey . . . hey, York, where are the aliens?" Kirk was still at the top of the ridge.
I glanced around, but didn't see them.
There was a noise behind us, coming up the backside of the ridge.
Kirk came over the ridge. He flattened himself down behind a sapling. I did the same behind another. We waited, still hearing something moving. Kirk and I had rigged up a line of fireworks and I was trying to figure out how I could get to the central fuse. Slowly, it appeared over the ridge, whispering, "Pssst. Pssst."
"Ol' Man Kelsey?"
"Wilbur?" He looked over in my direction, but he didn't see me, because he kept staring. After a few moments, he asked, "Is that you?"
"Can't you see me?"
"No, I'm blind, stupid." He raised a hand out toward me. "Really blind."
Me and Kirk guided Ol' Man Kelsey back down the ridge. As we reached the bottom, we heard the hum of an engine and twenty yards down the rutted path he'd been using for a road we found his tractor, overturned in the ravine next to it. It was almost two miracles in one that he hadn't been killed and that he'd even managed to drive the tractor this far.
I reached down and turned the engine off. "This changes everything."
"What happened?" Kirk asked.
"You escaped, too, eh?" Ol' Man Kelsey asked.
"Yes, sir," I said. "Now, what are we going to do?"
Ol' Man Kelsey told us what happened to him. Kirk kept him on track. Ol' Man Kelsey tended to wander about the subject. "The bushes blinded me with their mind probe machine," he said. "They crawled around inside my head and blinded me from there." He crossed his arms, missing the first time but making it the second.
"From within?" Kirk asked.
"Don't have no answer for that. They asked me to concentrate on everything I'd ever seen on TV. That's all they was interested in. Even though I told them radio was more fun. They said they had heard radio, but didn't know what to make of it until they come across sound and pictures."
"What's so damn important about TV?" I asked.
"They don't see it as TV," Ol' Man Kelsey said.
"What the hell does that mean?" Kirk asked.
I looked from one to the other. "And how the hell's it supposed to help us defeat them?"
Ol' Man Kelsey didn't respond. He was silent as one of those Sphinx. I could almost hear the desert piling up around him.
"Come on," I said. "We got to get out of here before they find us."
"Where do we go?" Kirk asked.
"You were a captain. You should still know these things."
"I should, should I?"
"Oh, yeah?" Kirk pointed a finger at me.
"Boys," Ol' Man Kelsey said. "Stop bickering. You sound like them bush aliens. They kept bickering over where they could find Neals son. Ranting and raving over the importance of his powers. How he could sweep humans away without appeal." Ol' Man Kelsey shrugged his shoulders. "I tried telling them Neals son was no such thing. That we don't even have a president named Neals son. And that's when they probed me. They strapped me to this chair and shined bright, dancing lights in my eyes. It was like that infernal disco. I swear it was. I even heard buzzing, high-pitched, boy voices. Asking. Searching. Since they knowed for sure the others was here and that they was looking for Neals son, they had to capture him first."
"With what?" Kirk asked, returning with a branch that looked tall enough and sturdy enough to serve as a cane. "A big butterfly net?"
"I don't know," Ol' Man Kelsey said. "These bush aliens just think they can capture what they believe is our god. This guy named Neals son."
"And the halos want to capture this Neals son and his family," I said. "They believe they control the fate of humanity and they want to save them before Armageddon."
"What?" Kirk took Ol' Man Kelsey's arm and led his hand up to the branch. "How'd they get that idea?"
"Which one?" I asked.
"Both. Either one. The bush aliens."
"Don't know," Ol' Man Kelsey said. "But that's all they been ranting and raving about. Neals son this. Neals son that." He tossed the cane down. "I don't need no cripple stick."
"Say that again," Kirk said, shaking Ol' Man Kelsey's forearm. "Say it."
"No, the other thing."
"Neals son this. Neals son that."
"Ranting and raving."
"That's it!" Kirk stared directly at me. "It has to be."
"What has to be?"
"Neals son. Nealson or Nielsen. As in N-i-e-l-s-e-n rantings . . . I mean ratings. These bush aliens have mistaken the Nielsen ratings as the voice of god, so Nielsen must be god."
"No," I said. "These aliens can't be that dumb."
"They don't have to be dumb," Kirk said. "It could be a simple misunderstanding. Either way, nobody ever guaranteed first contact had to be with the smartest people of a race. After all, look who they contacted." He laughed. "I wonder how they wound up here?"
I didn't bother to tell him they were probably looking for Nielsen near the only remaining TV production facility in the U.S. All other TVs were made overseas or assembled in Mexico and shipped over the border. Frank used to remind me of that on a fairly regular basis. Listening to him had finally become useful after all. "If it wasn't for Greeneville," he'd say, "the entire country could be brought to its knees by all those foreigners refusing to sell us TVs. Just think what would happen to Hollywood. Yep, all those Jews would have to find another line of work." He always failed to mention that a foreign company owned this TV factory.
Kirk slapped me on the shoulder. "I was only joking."
"If you have to say it, then you weren't."
Kirk lifted his hand and stepped back. "You have to admit, it's a strange place for first contact. The last place I'd think of. Out in the middle of nowhere on the west side of the Appalachian Mountains."
"Yeah, and now that we know what they're looking for," Ol' Man Kelsey said, "we has to decide what we're going to do about it."
"All of us?" I asked, picking up the cane and putting it back in Ol' Man Kelsey's hand. "Keep it until your eyesight returns. Besides, it's the only weapon you've got."
"All of us." Ol' Man Kelsey held on to the stick this time.
"Then I guess I better come clean," Kirk said, admitting that he was, in reality, an undercover reporter doing a documentary about an all-African-American black supremacist mercenary group. He had posed as a disgruntled former U.S. Army soldier, playing on his combat experience and not telling them he had become an award-wining undercover reporter since Vietnam. To prove to us he was a true journalist, he had a camera hidden near by and he went and got it. Once we knew for certain we had the camera, the rest of the plan was easy: we'd give the aliens what they wanted.
"Hear me. Hear me. I have seen the light of the Nielsen and has been blinded by his brilliance." Ol' Man Kelsey stumbled up over the top of the ridge and made his way down the other side, bouncing into a couple of small trees, losing his cane. "Hear me. Hear me. I have seen the Nielsen and he is coming. Run. Run for your lives."
I don't know who saw him first, but soon one of the bushes was out of his spaceship and rustling his way toward Ol' Man Kelsey. The bush turned back toward the ship and said something. Another bush appeared with Frank at his side. Frank? What was he doing here? He should be with the halos, with the whites. In the dim glow of what may have been a fire, I saw several men begin stirring. I scanned the faces: all black. Me and Kirk, we watched from behind a rock.
"Who's that?" Kirk asked.
"Frank. My good-for-nothing brother-in-law."
Kirk stared at me. I could feel his eyes probing through the darkness.
"I didn't hatch him," I said.
"You know what to do?"
"Yeah. Sure. Do you?"
"Just like in Nam," he said.
I had no earthly idea what he meant by that, though I did want to know what happened to him there.
"Remember," I said, "right after we free your guys, we free mine." It rankled me to think of freeing a group of negro mercenaries, but a deal was a deal.
He looked back at me. "You hate this, don't you? Being beholden to blacks."
"Negroes," I said.
"'Negroes'? Is that the best you can do as a racist?"
"I ain't no racist. I just believe everything has its place---"
"And we're out of ours."
"Mostly. And mostly you're ungrateful."
"Then maybe you'd like to rescue your guys by yourself. After all, you're the great Nielsen." He then picked up the camera and marched over the ridge.
I watched him. He wielded the camera like a weapon, turning on the top-mounted light and firing it at one bush then another, the glare forcing them to recoil. I saw Frank come forward, putting his hand up to block the light. Kirk ignored him and moved on. He began shouting: "I am the cameraman for Nielsen. I am here to herald his arrival. All prepare to greet Nielsen. He has heard your pleas. Prepare to make him welcome. All rise."
The negroes looked confused, then slowly started standing. The bushes appeared confused as well, but how can you tell? One of the bushes approached Kirk and tried talking to him, but Kirk ignored him and kept going. He ordered the negroes to stand, and most of them did. Those that didn't, he stopped in front of until they did. One of the negroes pointed to the smoke canisters on the belt pack. Kirk slapped the guy's hand down and continued on. He was recording the whole thing.
I rose up on my hands and started over the ridge. Pain from my sore ankle danced over me like an electric shock. I tried moving my other foot, but nothing worked. Kirk glanced my way. I tried again. Ol' Man Kelsey stumbled around. I tried a third time. I saw Frank moving away. It was as if I didn't know myself or how any part of me worked.
The beam of light from Kirk's camera crawled across the underbrush toward me. Closer and closer. Just a few feet away. I collapsed back into the leaves. There were tears in my eyes. I felt a large, weighty hand on my left shoulder. It pushed down with so much force so fast, I thought surely it was the hand of God, and in that I felt a sudden sense of release. It definitely wasn't rapture or salvation, but it was almost as good.
"You're making a mistake," a deep voice said, a sort of Darth-Vader-James-Earl-Jones-slightly-raspyish voice. For a second, I thought it was God and that He was a negro. A shiver raced down my spine, like my soul shrinking away.
Lightning danced in the distance.
I waited a moment, counting one thousand and one, one thousand and two . . .. I tried turning my head.
"Stay down, boy." Something pressed down on my neck. "You're under arrest."
God wouldn't say that.
I heard the low boom of thunder in the distance and I was sure I also heard the echo of laughter.
I was sitting in a chair, in a small room with only one overworked light. It was low wattage, like the people I'd been dealing with. It hung too low from the ceiling, and sometimes it wasn't even on.
The voice didn't belong to God, but to some negro special agent from some super secret, quasi-governmental, quasi-business, quasi-hump-backed joint venture in extra terrestrial security. MOONSHADOW was the alphabet name of the outfit. I guessed it probably didn't have a street address or listed phone number or any other polite way of getting an explanation, and when I asked, not even special agent Gerald O. Deeds, the voice of MOONSHADOW, could explain what all those letters stood for.
"I bet your letterhead just fills the top half of the page," I said.
"If you'll answer my questions, things will go a lot easier on you."
Cigarette smoke drifted my way. Some cheap, no-name brand probably. Something Frank would smoke.
"And if I don't, you going to throw me in jail?"
He didn't respond. Just as I thought. He didn't want to go that route.
"No, but we do have a holding pen that has nothing to do with the local authorities. In fact, nobody will know you're gone."
I crossed my arms. Once you've been overthrown and faced two groups of aliens, mere threats lose their impact. "Look, let's face reality. You've got a deep dark secret you want to keep, and personally, I don't give a good flying dive into the toilet what you want to keep secret. I just want my men back. You help me, and I won't even remember your name, MOONBEAM."
"Cute. How do we know your men can keep a secret?"
I shrugged my shoulders. "I guess you don't."
"Then we've got a lot to lose."
"Not really. After all, who's going to believe them? Tabloids are full of alien contact stories. This'll be another one of them."
"I see your point. But what about you. You know about us."
"Well, MOONBEAM, you just have to trust me."
There was a slight rustling sound, like the tips of a straw broom being brushed across the cement floor. It came from outside the dim field of light.
"What do we get out of it?"
"Your privacy. As I see it, you're here because they're here. As soon as me and my little band of soldiers are out of your way, you can do whatever you want with the bush people."
"We don't care about the bush people, as you so quaintly put it. It's the others we're interested in."
I don't know what prompted me to say it, other than general mistrust, but I said, "What others?"
"Don't play stupid with us. We know you know about the other aliens."
Why would they be interested in the halos and not in the bushes? As I thought of something to say, I heard the rustling again. I stared in the direction of the sound, trying to divine something in the darkness. After a few moments, I turned my gaze back toward the man from MOONSHADOW.
"Maybe I shouldn't help you after all."
"That would be unwise," Deeds said.
"You can't hold me forever." The rickety straight back chair was beginning to get uncomfortable.
"We can try. But Sergeant, I don't want to get into a pissing contest with you. It won't do either of us any good. I love my country and you do too, and I can see we're both out here on a cold December evening trying to do what we think is best. To do that, we're going to have to trust each other."
A government negro loving this country the way I do. Ssshhh, that'll be the day.
"Look," he said. "To show you I mean what I say, I'll let you call home and tell . . . I mean, talk to your wife." He pulled a cellular phone out of his jacket and dialed.
It irritated me that he knew so much about me -- including my home phone number -- and I didn't know a damn thing about him. I heard the phone ringing. "Let me talk to your wife."
"Hello?" It was my wife's voice. Small and far away.
He clapped the lower part of the phone shut, just like a Star Trek communicator. "You trying to be cute, honky?"
"A might defensive aren't you?" Good. I was irritating him.
He smiled, then reached up and straightened his tie. He had not loosened it, nor had he unbuttoned the top button the whole time he'd been interrogating me. Impeccable suit. Had to give him that. Then again, all them negroes know how to dress. My sister told me that. Said you want to know how to dress, watch a negro. Spend more money on clothes than a rock star does on cocaine. Both just as screwed up on the priorities. Even this negro's shoes were impeccable -- they almost reflected more light than they got -- though he'd been hiking through the woods.
"Something wrong with my shoes?" He pulled them out of the light.
"Not a thing, special agent. Not a thing." I looked up and smiled. "I'm ready to talk to my wife now."
"Honey, where are you?"
My wife sounded like she was in the other room, like maybe we were playing hide and go seek. Adult style.
"I'm okay. You okay?"
"Yes, dear. I have some wonderful news. Wilbur Junior is home. Talk with him. He has something important to tell you."
I heard a thirty-one-year-old voice in the background whine "Mother," then there was silence created by a hand over the phone receiver. Everything Wilbur, Jr., did or said was "important." She still doted on him. Probably why the boy turned out so unreasonably liberal. Despite what spit-and-shine thought, this wasn't turning out to be a good idea. After isolating me for a while (Since I didn't have my watch, I didn't know how long.), he had handed me the phone, my wife's voice already attached to it.
Two words and he already sounded deflated.
I probably didn't sound any better.
"How long you in for?"
That's not exactly what I meant.
"Dad, I've something to tell you."
"I'm leaving the Peace Corps."
"Son, that's wonderful news! Wonderful---"
"Dad, wait, dad, listen. It may not be all that wonderful."
"Why?" What could it be? Sounded to me like my flesh and blood was finally coming to his senses. Sowed all his wild oats so there wasn't any reason left to be gallivanting all over the world trying to be some non-violent hero. Now that's one of those contradiction in terms. Like Peace Corps. An oxymoron I think Wilbur, Jr., once called contrary words forced to live side-by-side. Only the government could think up such a term. Like snafu.
"Dad, I'm leaving the Peace Corps to join Green Peace."
"Green . . . green . . . ."
"Green Peace, dad. Green Peace. Have to go. Here's mom."
There was again muffled silence, but I didn't try to penetrate it. Something sharp had just penetrated me.
"Honey, I hate to add to your little bag of holiday surprises, but I want you to know I've taken all the Christmas decorations down and given them to the Salvation Army."
"Wha . . . what?"
"Honey, I gave away all the Christmas stuff. I'm converting to Judaism and we don't believe in Christmas."
"We what?" My mouth hung open as if my chin was just too much to lift back into place. My throat was parched. It felt as if I had just swallowed all the dust in a vacuum cleaner bag.
"I'm a Jew. We don't believe in Christmas. I didn't want to offend Rabbi Brown. Wait, I hear the doorbell. He must be here now." Her voice moved away from the phone. She directed Wilbur to open the door and seat the guests. After a few moments, her voice returned full-throated: "Sorry, honey."
"That ain't the half of it," I said.
"You ain't a hillbilly, Wilbur. Stop trying to act like one."
"I's a hillbilly if'n I wants to be a hillbilly."
"Never mind." She hung up the phone.
Visions of Stonehenge danced in my head. Maybe I was unfit for command. I stood alone in the dark, clutching a little cordless box from hell, feeling the last of my life slip away. Rabbi Brown?
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death . . . . There is inspiration in those words. And inspiration often comes in the darkest of night, in the deepest of despair, just at the moment you're about to abandon all hope in a makeshift building somewhere in Ol' Man Kelsey's Woods. And for that moment of inspiration all time, all motion stops. The world is filled with a new light and you catch a glimpse of everything.
"This isn't a trick?" Deeds asked.
"You're holding all the high cards," I said.
"I don't like it. Your brother-in-law, Frank Gunter, promised to lead us to the halos, too."
"You want the halos or don't you?" I held my tongue on Frank. He must be gone or they wouldn't be dealing with me.
Deeds stepped back into the darkness, whispered something, and then reappeared. He was talking to a bush. God and the whisk whisk sound of broom straw told me so.
"Remember, they told me they'd have their ship repaired by sunrise, then off they'd go, into the wild blue yonder." I hooked my thumbs together and whistled as I fluttered my fingers up to eye level. Only the metallic sound the handcuff bracelets clinking together disturbed my presentation.
"How do I know I can trust you?"
I was tired of his antsiness. "You can't. But who has who handcuffed?"
Deeds looked away.
"Look. If you don't like my plan, then go capture them yourself. You and your army."
"No. My army can't be seen."
I snickered. Maybe he was MOONSHADOW.
Deeds glared at me. Then he smiled. "You know, those halos do want humans as slaves. Especially white humans."
"Want a superior breed of slave do they?" His smugness was irritating, like a skin condition.
Kirk was right. I hated having to rely on negroes for my escape and my men's, but I had no alternative, especially if I was going to follow the dictates of my enlightenment. When God had inspired me, his exact words were: "Pull day from the womb of night, wine from the lips of a stream, and a fortress from the ashen grip of dead armies."
My next meeting with Kirk didn't start off too well.
"Nice of you to carry through on our plan, Sergeant. Desert often?" Kirk asked.
"Every chance I get."
He shook his head. "You're a case."
"You're free, ain't you."
"No thanks to you."
I started to say something smart back, but realized it would be like pumping a dry well. "Look, Captain . . . Kirk, I didn't abandon you. I had a shoe shoved down on my neck and a fine group of bushes to keep me company."
"Kirk? Kirk! You don't even remember my real name, do you, Sergeant ... York?" He broke into a long laugh.
Before he was done, I was laughing with him. And so were many of his men. Deeds stared at us.
"Okay, Sergeant," Kirk said, "What do you have in mind?"
"I think it's time we went to church."
Kirk started laughing again; his men started laughing again. But as soon as he saw I wasn't laughing, he stopped. It took his men a little longer to catch on.
I took Ol' Man Kelsey aside. He was still blind, but I needed him to direct me to his still. I needed all the firewater he had.
"What you aiming to do?" he asked.
"Can't rightly say." I rubbed my chin. The bristles from several days growth dug into my fingers.
"Can't or won't."
"It's part of God's message to me. He told me to 'pull wine from the lips of a stream.'"
"I ain't got no wine."
I nodded, forgetting for a moment he couldn't see. "Then we make do as best we can."
"Comforting thought." He spit, turned, and tried walking away. Instead, he ran into a bush. "Damn holly."
The bush tried to pull away from Ol' Man Kelsey. After a few more choice words from the old man, the bush succeeds. Then the bush stepped up beside me. "Does secret agent man approve of your plan to attend church?"
"I don't know. I haven't asked him."
The bush moved closer, almost too close. "We want to follow yous. We the same as yous. We find negroes substandard. We wish to be rid of them."
Rid of them? Now how's that for an interstellar how do you do? I pushed the bush. My hands stung. He stumbled back. I stomped toward him. "You listen here, you talking sprig of plant life---"
"Don't wind me." He backed into the wall.
I crowded him. "I don't care who or what you find substandard. If you want to win this little round of Armageddon, you'll do as you're told and keep a civil tongue in your head, wherever that is."
Kirk trotted over and wedged himself between me and the bush. "What's this all about, Sergeant?"
The bush rustled against the corrugated metal, trying to slide away.
I glared at Kirk.
The bush squeezed out and scurried away.
I waited until I had a tighter grip on my anger. He wasn't respecting me, only accepting me as the lesser of two evils. He had no right aligning himself with my preferences. None of this was his damn concern. I only wanted my men back. Then both the halos and the bushes could butcher each other for all I cared. That was their fight. This was mine.
I walked over to Deeds. "I have a job for your bush men. They're to follow me."
"You have no right."
"I got all the rights I need."
Kirk stared at me as if I was mumbling Vietnamese when I walked over and told him all he had to do was rescue a platoon of wayward white militia men and leave the handling of the bushes to me.
"You're not coming?"
"No," I said. "Keep your voice down."
"But how are you going to handle them?" he asked.
"I'm going to ambush them."
"Am-bush. You're getting cute."
"Shhh. I don't know how better to explain it."
"They're not just going to follow you into some sort of trap."
"They will if they want Nielsen."
"We could just let them fight it out," he said. "They could be a diversion and we could get your men out while they're fighting."
"How many of your negro brothers are going to enter a firefight to rescue some white honkies?"
"I see your point."
"Besides, I don't know what type weapons they have. They may have death rays that would fry us all in a heart beat."
Kirk nodded. "I know they must have some type of flame retardant stuff, because when those halos crashed, they immediately coated the crash site with something that killed any flames. I got it on tape."
"So the fireworks won't work?" I asked.
"No, they'll work. They just won't set anything on fire."
"Even better," I said. That means all you have to do is set off the fireworks for a diversion, bomb the halos with alcohol, which will drive them away, and rescue my men. Nobody gets hurt."
"Where do I get the alcohol?"
"I know an old man."
Convincing Ol' Man Kelsey to turn over his supply of homemade brew to a bunch of negroes wasn't easy. "I can't just lead them to it."
"I know. You're blind."
"That's not the point, you fool."
"The point is, Ol' Man, you created this problem by renting to every militia group in the known universe."
"Not every. I have standards."
"I'll have to charge you extra," he said.
"For the liquor. I ain't just giving this stuff up?"
It's times like these that trivialize man's soul.
The breeze had picked up again. Ol' Man Kelsey and Kirk and Deeds and the negroes had already left. I told them to get their part done quick. Dawn was only a couple hours away. I had walked fifty feet from the hut, my ankle feeling okay in the makeshift bandage, when I turned around and found nobody behind me.
Distant rumbling echoed through the sky. The hut door was open. Bushes were in the doorway, but nobody was stepping outside. By the time I got back to the door, a few had stepped outside, trying to contort themselves flat against the corrugated aluminum. They looked like those . . . I think Regina Dean called the ones she bought for the yard espalier trees.
"What the hell is this about?"
"Your wind," the leader said. "We are . . . admiring your wind."
"Well, admire it later. If we don't get moving, Nielsen will get away." I started walking away.
I wondered what other wonders of nature might hold us up. I needed to have them out of the way before Kirk's men attacked. I hadn't bothered to tell Kirk one of the reasons I decided not to go after my men was that I was afraid they would laugh at me . . . again.
I glanced over my shoulder. The bushes still hadn't move.
"Hey," I yelled. "Get the lead out."
That's when Frank walked out of the woods.
"Well, I'll be a---"
"That's your problem, Commander Opis," Frank said. "You're always trying to be something you ain't."
We started circling an empty dot in the air between us, animals stalking each other, hunting for a weakness. There was still a breeze. The bushes stayed inside the hut; those that had come out went back in. Streaks of lightning danced down from the clouds. The hairs on the back of my neck were standing up. My palms were sweaty. Some voice inside me said I didn't have much time left.
"Government snitch," I said.
"Took you long enough to figure it out."
I was only guessing. "We trusted you."
"You trusted nobody."
"You were like a brother---"
"A brother-in-law you mean."
"Now, I get to be boss. I will lead these aliens against the halos and free my white men. Then they will follow me."
"I've already taken care of their rescue," I said.
"You think that old man and those two niggers is going to save them? You really are cracked. Them nigger mercenaries high-stepped it out of here soon as they was freed."
I hoped Kirk could improvise.
I was getting dizzy. Circles ain't the easiest thing to do on a tender ankle and an empty stomach. I stopped.
"Admit it." Frank continued stalking around me. "You've lost for the second time tonight. You can't even stand on your own two feet."
The bushes were waiting for a resolution, as if they would follow whoever won.
Frank lunged at me. He tripped over a root and in one lucky punch I cold-cocked him. He tumbled to Earth like some ungainly shooting star. There wasn't much satisfaction in winning so easily. Sort of like that Iraqi thing that wasn't really a war.
I leaned over him, clutching the lapel of his camouflage suit. My other hand was fisted so tight I felt it go numb. "Get up you sonofabitch," I said. "Get up and fight like a man."
I turned toward the bushes. "Get your asses out here. I ain't got all night."
They fell in line.
I hate to admit it, but marching through Ol' Man Kelsey's woods with a bunch of bushes in tow, well, I felt much as Grant must of felt on his march through the Wilderness. Maybe even a little like Moses in his Wilderness. It was my country; it was my Promised Land, but it was alien to me now. I was the foreigner, the stranger in a strange land.
I had taken to the top of a ridge. It was the quickest way to move, and it gave me a chance to see any fireworks going off over towards the halos. Maybe the negroes hadn't run off. I said a silent prayer that something good would happen this night.
I could still turn these guys toward the halos or I could keep leading them further into the woods, to the Church of Gospel Light, distracting them until my men were rescued and the halos were gone. Then the bushes could follow them into space and fight it out somewhere just short of the space the angels occupy.
Which way was best? It was a great burden to decide. I waited for a sign. Leaves jumped out of the woods at me as the wind picked and stirred them. The lights from the town two ridges over and from the houses dotting the sloops and valleys in between cast an eerie yellow, orange, and gray glow that was bounced from the clouds back down to the ground around me. It felt like the clouds were pressing down closer to the ground and that the night lights were the only thing keeping us from being swallowed up in darkness and fog. Thin strips of fog darted about.
The head bush came up beside me. "Can we move to the valley?"
"Why?" I asked.
"We . . . we are not used to your wind." The breeze tossed his holly leaves around like they were a little girl's braids. I didn't stand close to him for fear of getting cut by the edges. And then there was the smell of rotten beef on his breath.
"There's no wind on your world?"
"Along the tops of what yous call trees, but furry stuff grows too dense to let it blow down where we live."
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow, Isometimes get an idea.
"Sure," I said. "We'll go down into the valley."
"Will we still get Nielsen?"
I had never been to the Church of Gospel Light, or any church, in the wee hours of the morning. Except for that one time when I was sixteen and we had that dead skunk . . . but I'm sure the Lord has forgiven me that. Certainly, I'm not being punished for the skunk in the choir loft now.
I didn't know what to expect, but it sent two shivers down my spine as I opened the door. Maybe it was because I had to force the door. Maybe it was because the door was so easy to force. Either way, the door didn't creak, and that was creepy too.
I told the bushes to go inside while I went around to the cave and started up the generator. I told them I was going to turn on the power. If I didn't, Nielsen wouldn't come. All ten of them seemed pleased with that answer, especially since it meant they could get out of the wind.
I couldn't get the generator going. I found the small flashlight on the short rock ledge just inside the cave. I checked the oil. I checked the kerosene. I fiddled with all the connections I could find. Without the generator there'd be no lights and with no lights, I certainly wasn't going to be able to keep the bushes here. They wanted Nielsen, and barring that, they wanted halos. I just wanted them gone. And I wanted the halos gone. And I wanted my men back. I wanted it like it was. I almost had the men believing I was a good leader, their leader. I almost felt I was finally being accepted before the aliens came.
I kicked the side of the generator. Stupid thinking, since I did it with my tender foot. The pain almost knocked me out. I cursed the generator and banged an almost empty kerosene can against its side.
It was over. I wasn't going to be able to turn on the generator, then turn on the lights, and finally turn on the fans to blow those holly bushes over.
I limped back out into the full brunt of the night. The wind was almost howling down from the clouds, so I didn't hear the voices. In fact, it was the light I saw first. An incandescence just topping the small ridge over from the one Gospel Light is on. It was a long line of light, a glowing line that appeared to be growing brighter, especially with the wind coming from over that direction.
The wind died down for a moment and I heard voices. I glanced toward the church, but there wasn't anybody coming. I stepped quietly through the small graveyard of the church's first families to the edge of the ridge.
The voices were dull mumblings on the air, and if they'd been talking normal, I wouldn't have heard then at all. But they were shouting. And as they light topped the ridge, I could see fighting: whites, blacks, and halos. Guns clattered. Heat beams flickered on and off, starting little fires that were being fed by the fallen leaves and fanned by the now swirling wind. One of the small fires even crawled up the ridge toward the big one and merged. For a second, the big fire hesitated, and then arms of it moved down the sides of the burned patch almost like it was embracing a child. Fire certainly is a fascinating thing to watch. In its way, it's almost peaceful.
"Is that Nielsen coming up on that tractor?"
I almost leapt out of my skin. My head jerked in the direction of the voice. For a moment, I didn't recognize him. "Jeeminee Christmas . . . Moose. Don't sneak up on a body like that."
He was bandaged up so much; he looked like one of those Egyptian mummies I used to see on TV every Saturday. He even sported dark spots on the bandages. The main thing that distinguished him from the TV mummies was his gun holsters, though I do remember a movie about a cowboy mummy.
"Look. It's Ol' Man Kelsey and two niggers."
I looked back toward the fire. For few seconds, I didn't see them. Then a heat beam ignited a pile of leaves near the tractor. On it were Ol' Man Kelsey, Deeds and Kirk. Ol' Man Kelsey was driving. The tractor was weaving in almost every direction except up into the sky where it'd be safest. "Oh, Sweet Jesus."
"What's going on?"
I didn't have time to answer, and I wasn't sure I could. "Look, Moose, I need you to go over to the Gospel Light there and entertain our guests. Keep them inside the church."
"Who is they?"
"Important folk from out of town."
"But it's dark in there."
He looked at me as if he had another question. I scowled at him and he turned toward the church.
"Just stand guard outside."
A long strand of toilet paper trailed behind him, catching on a couple of the small, rough-edged headstones. The outhouse door banged against the frame.
Willy nilly, the fighting hordes were starting to climb up the side of this ridge. There were more rocks and less trees on this ridge than the other, but enough to feed the fire. It looked like it was taking a more direct route. I wondered which one was going to get here first. The only thing that seemed to be retarding the fire were shifting winds. For now it was blowing down into the face of the fire.
I walked over to Moose. Somebody was scrapping on the other side of the church door.
"Give me one of your guns, soldier. And all your ammo."
"No buts, soldier."
"But, Commander . . . it ain't real."
I grabbed the gun and cap paper and ran toward the side of the ridge, loading and firing as I charged through the graveyard of the church founders. It was a simplifying feeling, like my boyhood in the cornfields of Illinois. I fed the roll of caps in backwards, so the unused paper was curled out on top of the gun. I used to get the cap paper to flare up with a hiss. When I was six, I'd even set a whole cornfield on fire. We left Illinois the next year.
I almost ran straight over the edge of the ridge before I pulled up, slipped, and fell sideways into a clump of leaves. I struggled up from the leaves and continued firing. Pop, pop, pop. "Come on." Pop pop pop. "Damn it." Finally, with just a small piece of the roll left, a spark flew up from the gun hammer and caught the rest of the roll on fire. I tossed the gun down into the leaves. A fire began sputtering. I crawled forward and blew on the tiny flames. The fire almost died out, then it came back to life, flaring up and singing my hair. I scrambled to my feet and back up the ridge. I just hoped the wind direction didn't change.
When I got back to the top of the ridge, I turned and looked. The flames were already halfway to the bottom. It wasn't a big wall of flames. Mainly, it was a wide path, wider in some spots than others, jumping its way down between the limestone rock outcroppings. Along some of the edges, it had already died down. That was good.
As my fire moved closer to the fighting, Kirk pointed at the flames, then up the ridge at me. He shook his fist at me.
I waved him up the ridge. Two shots hit the ground near me. One thumped the dirt; the other zinged off a headstone. A piece of headstone nicked my cheek.
I began clearing away everything from around the church, tossing it down the ridge. I made Moose help me. He started to ask why, but I cut him off. I grabbed a ladder and had Moose haul in buckets of water from the well on the other side of the church. He asked if I was thirsty. I said no, the church was.
One of the bushes pushed open the church door. I had piled a few stones in front of it, trying to keep them inside. I was surprised they had waited this long before wanting some answers. I told him Nielsen was angry. He asked about what.
"I didn't ask. He said you'd know."
"He's on to us?"
"He's on to everybody."
The bush stepped back inside and shut the door. I didn't expect that to keep him long. But he was the last of my worries at the moment.
We'd barely had a chance to moisten the roof when the first warriors came over the ridge. They were Ol' Man Kelsey, Kirk, and Deeds. Deeds looked a little peaked.
Religion is a comforting thing. At least in some aspect it's supposed to be. The Lord is usually in His heaven and all's right with the world. But this night He must've been out. The only thing I could take comfort in was possibly surviving in Gospel Light. From my ladder, I could see that the fire had moved around us. We were encircled in a moving wall of flames.
Kirk ran over to the ladder and almost shook me off. "What the hell you mean setting this hill on fire."
"Fuck you. Get down here so I can pop you one in the head."
I came down the ladder. His nostrils were flaring, just like they did in Nam. It's an almost universal negro trait.
"I don't have time to explain. I did it to save you. Save us."
"Liar. You did it to burn all us niggers out. And you didn't care who else you killed."
I took the last bucket of water from Moose and splashed it on Kirk. The cool well water didn't reset his attitude any, but it put out the smoldering coming from his clothes.
"Get hold of yourself. You're about to burn up and all you want to do is fight." I pointed to his shoulder.
He glanced at it, then back at me.
"You want me to take him, Commander?"
"No, Moose, we ain't got time. Either the flames or the fools will be upon us directly. I think we'd better get ready to hunker down."
"Where?" Kirk asked.
I pointed at the church. When religion fails to give you comfort, sometimes the church does. And if not comfort, sanctuary until God comes around with an answer. Brother Rick once preached on paradise literally meaning "walled garden or sanctuary." I never quite thought of it applying to Gospel Light, but right now it was the only paradise we had left.
"What about the others?"
I shrugged my shoulders. "They're welcome to join us."
What happened next I can't explain, except maybe by the grace of God. And right now, as I finish writing this in a cave, my fire dying, my charcoal running out, unable to find an exit, I still don't have an answer.
My wife, when she was Catholic, talked about purgatory, a place where souls are cleansed. I'm no Catholic, but this could be my purgatory or at least my forty days in the desert. I don't know how long I've been here. I was out for a while after the explosion. I've found some water trickling down the sides of some rocks, so I know I'm not too far from the surface. I've heard voices. Thought once or twice I'd even seen somebody. I've even found food, here and there, in the cave. But found no way out. "Like a womb with no view," Frank would say. Or one of them Kafka-type adventures, Brother Rick might say in one of his literary moods. I remember a little Kafka, though I can't say why, except I'd welcome somebody showing up to arrest me and take me away and not tell me what I'm charged with. Yes, I'd even accept the America I know is coming, if only I could get out of here. Please Lord Jesus, get me out of here. I've been scrawling on this cave wall as I've moved along so I'd know if I'd doubled back on myself.
Caves can be tricky. I had a friend, Sam, who drowned in one. He and a couple of buddies were trying to relive their days in the Seals. There are a lot of underwater caves, created after TVA built the damns and flooded out good farmland. All for cheap government power which isn't cheap any more. Just like the rest of it. Sam and his two buddies rented 30-minute tanks, took a quick refresher course, then dived into one of those caves. Sam got lost and ran out of air. After I heard that, I woke up for several nights, clutching at my blanket, feeling the weight of his death somewhere between my heart and my throat. One night I even saw his face in one of those goggle masks, his eyes wide with surprise. His face had a greenish cast to it, like an abandoned statue.
There was an awful lot of fighting going on. White on negro. Negro on halo. White on halo. Halo on bush. A bush came running out of the church and spotted a halo. And as soon as one was out the door, they all were.
The fire licked at the graveyard on one side and came out of the woods on the other sides. It was about up to the generator and the extra kerosene. We put the generator in the cave and ran wires from it to the church. We figured if it ever blew, the rock walls would contain the blast, and if the entrance collapsed on it then the fire would burn itself out.
Frank chased Captain Kirk and a bush into the cave. I ran to warn them. Deeds intercepted me. He was holding his cellular phone.
"I've called for help," he said. "It's on the way. What do we do?"
"Get in the church and wait." I didn't see how any help was going to reach us before the fire did.
I didn't have time to explain that logs a foot thick don't burn easily. He wouldn't understand anyway. The thickest thing he ever burned was his temper. "Church." I shoved him toward the building. I was almost to the cave when a bright light cut through the haze. A wind swooped down, curling away the haze, making the light blinding wherever it touched. The light swirled around and was followed by several others. They all passed over me. For a moment I felt like a rock star on center stage. There was quiet and everybody was waiting for me to strum the first cords and swivel my hips.
The fighting stopped and everyone looked up. I mean everyone: white, negro, halo, and bush. Frank, Kirk, Deeds, Moose and even sightless Ol' Man Kelsey. With the wind roaring down and the fire crackling toward us from every side like a great flame-ridden maw chewing up the dried bones of the forest, we stopped like we were praying before the start of a picnic on the grounds. Then a voice filled the sky.
"This is Captain Jean-Luc Picard."
My throat was tight. I was sure it was the smoke.
"We are here to save you. But we can only take four of you. You must decide who. You have two minutes."
I saw Brother Rick chasing after one of the swirling lights. It looked like he had a writing tablet in his hand. He was probably going to tell Captain Picard that saving was his business. Even if heaven was his only escape plan.
Four. That could mean one white, one negro, one halo, one bush. Or we could all go to the church and take our chances.
Kirk stepped up beside me. "Well, York, what do you think?"
"I think somebody's trying to steal your act, Captain."
Kirk slapped me on the shoulder and laughed even harder. Several other negroes began laughing.
Some bushes were shaking and rustling, which I took for laughter. The halos began changing, shooting up blobs of different colors from their feet to their heads. They looked like giant lava lamps. All that made the whites laugh. Even Brother Rick squealed out something high-pitched and nervous, like a record needle skating across a vinyl 45.
I'm sure Captain Picard up there didn't know what to make of it. I wasn't sure what to make of it either. In an odd and strange way I felt worthy. Like I could do a good deed for an enemy and feel right about it. I saw it in Kirk's eyes. I saw it as I looked at one of the bushes, one of the halos, some of my men. I believe I even saw it in Frank's eyes. I was surprised to see his blackened face only ten feet from me. I still held a small desire to pummel him.
As long as that worthy feeling held most of me, I believed I could propose we all wait out the fire inside the church: even Frank. I stepped up onto a nearby tree stump to voice my suggestion, when I was pre-empted by Captain Picard.
"Have you made a decision?"
Everybody looked at the floating lights. Then everybody looked at me.
I swallowed and cupped my hands around my lips. "Yes we have made a decision. We've decided to---"
"To fight it out in hell," Frank yelled. He fired a shot at the lights.
Somebody else fired. And a halo fired his heat beam. And a bush fired his gun. Then everybody was firing. Something flared in the night above us. For a second, it cast an almost midday luster below. But it quickly died and the lights spiraled down, straight though the roof of the Church of Gospel Light.
The church walls held. Pieces of the roof began raining down on us. We all looked at each other. Nobody said anything. Nobody did anything. Then a murmur passed among us, followed by an explosion. The last thing I remembered were parts of the log walls flying outward like a Lincoln Logs house kicked hard by an angry young boy.
When I awoke, I was inside the cave and the entrance was collapsed shut. A small fire was burning. Dust was still hanging in the air and I coughed for a while. Then I dug for a while. I coughed for a while more, because the thing I managed to move the most of was dust.
I wasn't alone. Kirk, a halo, and a bush came up from further back in the cave. They remembered dragging me and being dragged by me. And not much else.
We stumbled across some leftover kerosene, some matches and rags and papers and a few girlie magazines hidden behind a rock. I glanced at the magazines. So did Kirk. So did the halo and the bush. The pictures didn't move, so we burned them. As soon as I got out, I promised to have a talk with Brother Rick. Somebody's Sunday Schooling wasn't taking.
Whoever left the magazine also left a little food. Stale as it was, crackers and flat Coke beat nothing at all. The bush and the halo didn't seem to share Kirk's or my interest in food. I decided I could wait a little while before mentioning the magazines to Brother Rick. After all, boys will be boys.
Since we had nothing better to do as we looked for a way out, we started telling each other what happened. We each told a different story, and if that wasn't bad enough, each of us was the hero of his own story. Now that couldn't be right. None of them had done what I'd done.
"And you didn't do what I did," Kirk said.
That's when I grabbed a piece of charcoal and started writing on the wall the one and true history of what happened. Kirk saw this and grabbed a piece of charcoal of his own, moved across the cave, and began scrawling out his tall tale. The halo and the bush seeing this, well they started doing the same in their languages. The bush on my side, the halo on Kirk's.
One by one, as we wrote more on the walls, we came to places where the cave divided off. First, the halo wrote off into a separate tunnel, still claiming to rescue the Nielsen family just as soon as he got out. Then the bush. He claimed he would still save Nielsen. No amount of arguing could convince them they were on fools' errands. If it didn't come from a TV broadcast, they weren't going to believe it. They were worse than humans.
Eventually the cave came to a fork where Kirk and I parted ways.
We silently divvied up the tiny morsels of remaining food and scant few other supplies. We helped each other make two torches from some wood and oily rags we'd found near the generator.
Before he left, he looked over at me. I could barely see his eyes in the dying light. He looked like he wanted to say something, but couldn't quite get it right. Finally, he nodded ever so slightly and said, "Bye, Sarge."
I nodded back -- "Captain" -- and moved on. There wasn't any use sticking around. I sneezed and wiped something from my eye. I thought of Ol' Man Kelsey alone with his TV and his remote, forever sightless, sitting in his smoldering ruins, waiting for channel three to turn white. I saw trees like charred skeletons reaching up into the night for salvation. And I realized Brother Rick couldn't believe in the aliens because, living at Gospel Light, he didn't have a TV, so they couldn't contact him first.
Once we were in our own darknesses, Kirk yelled back: "Your name? What's your real name?"
"Wilbur. Wilbur Opis."
"Artemus Gordon," he said.
Kirk, ol' pal, where are you now?
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