Area 54 (Part 2 of 2)
By Hunter Liguore
9 April 2012
Part 2 of 2
Around the time of my thirteenth birthday, we took refuge on a farm in Oklahoma. It was owned by a Cherokee man we named Little Big, because he had a nose like Dustin Hoffman from the movie Little Big Man. Little Big gave us a place to live on the farm in exchange for work. Daddykins became a handyman of sorts, from milking cows, to shearing sheep, to planting crops, to building or repairing fences. Daddykins said it was the first place he'd ever been that the shortwave grew quiet.
I started public school as Summer Rain, Little Big's niece. I dyed my hair to match his sleek black mane and wore it in a fat braid. I took to reading books and kept one in my back pocket, like Tom Sawyer or Light in the Forest, the one Little Big read to me after dinner, since he didn't have a TV. The farm was the first place that felt like home in a long time, a real break from living outdoors or having to leave just when we got friendly with folks. I made a few friends at school, was liked by my teachers, and was a volunteer at the library. I even won first place at the county fair for my photograph of the old red barn.
At least two or three years passed. I started high school around fifteen, where I studied Shakespeare, Geography, Algebra, Biology, and French. It was October, when the leaves died off the trees and the ground turned brown and frozen, a time when the shortwave worked best. The look in Daddykins's eyes that had been gone for so long returned, and with it came regular surveillance of the night sky. He didn't ask for my help at first, since he didn't think there was much concern. But then one night he came and plucked me from bed. He scared me so much I took Teddy along.
"The Skyling messages have changed," he said. It was a different language than we were used to. "We need to decode it," he told me. "We need to know what they're saying." When the sky was dark, the shortwave was hot. What started out as a few hours deciphering code after school turned into entire missed days, and then eventually I just stopped going altogether, and worked night to morning on the code. By spring, when the ground turned to mud and the baby sheep were born, we had broken the code. The message was clear—they were coming for Daddykins.
Every day thereafter we practiced our getaway plan. The truck was always gassed up, parked facing the road, the key secretly hidden under the dashboard for easy access. I was a few months from having my driver's license, but knew how to drive real well, another part of our planning. We were always packed. Emergency food and water stored and refilled weekly. I lived in constant agitation that Daddykins might return from work telling me it was time to go.
Little Big wasn't privy to our plans. When he asked about our drills, Daddykins told him we were survivalists and wanted to be prepared if ever there was a nuclear attack, which from the newspapers sounded like it might be at least as imminent as a Skyling abduction. Little Big liked the idea of survival and taught us new skills, like tracking and hunting with a bow. He taught me to be still long enough to let a bird eat from my hand. He taught us to make applesauce from the orchard's apples. Butter from milk. How to make a fire without matches, and build a shelter from what he called "the tools of the Earth."
Little Big had a way of making the Skyling threat something in the distance, like mountains or clouds, things you knew were there but didn't regard at all times. He told me that if anything happened to Daddykins he'd take care of me. He was like an uncle to me, but Daddykins said that if something happened to him while we were at the farm then it was on account of Little Big really being a Skyling in disguise, and that he couldn't be trusted.
Near the end, Daddykins and Little Big started arguing about little things. He told me not to worry. They'd spend time apart—Daddykins went to the hills and Little Big went to the Brass Pony bar. I kept watch for Daddykins to return by the back door, staring out to the hilly crest for his figure, his high boots and flannel, like a type of Charles Ingalls. He usually came home before sundown and joined me on the porch with a glass of hard cider and the shortwave.
It was late April and Little Big had gone to the bar and Daddykins to the hills, and me on the porch. I didn't get much sleep the previous night and dozed off waiting for him to come home. I awoke to the shutters rattling, and bright lights sweeping over the farm, like a helicopter, almost, but louder and noisier. A strange wind kicked dirt into mini spirals, throwing them at the house. I hid under the table, shortwave in hand. I understood the message with little deciphering. We have the prisoner. A sick feeling passed through me. I knew Daddykins was in trouble. I headed outside, the lights blinded me; the wind forced me first to the ground and then back into the house.
I waited until morning, but Daddykins never came home. Two days passed and still nothing. The shortwave remained silent. In the afternoon on the third day, I went out to the hills and searched for him. Near a whole bunch of strange footprints in the mud, I found Daddykins's hat. I assumed the worst, hoping for abduction over capture. I was older now and understood what I had to do, seeing as I'd been drilled my whole life for a moment like this.
When I returned to the farm, Little Big told me Daddykins was a no-good drunk and that he'd run off and left me. I knew then and there I couldn't trust the Indian no more. I put the plan into action, rolling the pickup out of the driveway after dark, putting distance between Oklahoma and me for good.
I followed the back roads along the Arkansas River into Kansas, camping during the morning, driving at night. I bathed in the river and boiled it to drink, and kept my stocks up. Halfway through Kansas, I opened up the silver box, scared to do so, feeling it was like opening a coffin. It made the fact Daddykins was gone all the more real.
I cried reading his letter, which had been written when we'd first settled in Oklahoma. It updated a previous one, also attached, written when we'd first left home. I found seven letters altogether. Keep your guard up. Don't let anyone get too close. And more than anything, remember to keep the Skyling data safe from the govs. The box also contained cash and some gold, which he said to use only in an emergency. He included my birth certificate and a fake ID, and a letter I couldn't open until I was eighteen and officially an adult. My name going forward was Clara Van Winter. Clara for Clairborn. Van my pet name. And winter to remind me when the shortwave worked best. Daddykins always had a way with names.
My instructions were to return to Bobcat Bob in New England. He owned a small orchard in Western Connecticut not far from where I grew up. Daddykins said Bobcat would keep me safe, and that he was mostly certain he wasn't a Skyling. I drove the car east, following the Mississippi River out of Topeka, straight into Kentucky and headed northeast. It was May when I drove down the long driveway littered with old farm equipment and rusted cars, a garbage heap or two, and trees that were downed in a storm, but never cleared.
I parked the car and waited beside the truck to see if anyone came out of the beat-up house in need of a new roof. Behind me a young guy, maybe seventeen, shirtless with a tan, carrying a shotgun at his waist, asked me if I needed something. I was startled at first, but blushed when our eyes met. Something about the way he smiled at me, like a new toy, one I hadn't expected. I told him I was looking for Bobcat. "He's my father," he said.
The boy's name was Daniel, but I called him Danny. He said it was a sissy name and didn't like it, but that if he could call me Van, I could call him Danny. It was a deal. He took me to the garage where Bobcat was fixing a tractor. He was covered in grease and smelled a little like whiskey. He'd aged from the days I remembered him at the donut shop. Now he was balding, with greasy hair that he combed over the shiny spot. He was fuller in the face, and had a missing finger, which he said he'd lost in a card game. Danny told me he lost it holding a firecracker too long.
It was just the two of them. I handed over Daddykins's letter which stated the obvious, that he'd been abducted, possibly captured, and that I needed looking after until I was of age to take care of myself—though I figured I did all right on my own. Bobcat laid down some ground rules. I had to attend school, do my homework, and get good grades. "You'll be responsible for the cooking and cleaning, and you'll have to go to church on Sunday." I told him the Skylings made me sort of an atheist and he let it slide, saying, "I never go either. But it seems like all the good people do."
I kept a room on the opposite side of the house from Bobcat and Danny. It was the biggest room, the one Bobcat and his wife slept in before she left him for another man. When Bobcat drank on the weekends, he talked about her leaving like it happened yesterday. Danny didn't like him talking crap about his mother. The night usually ended with a fight. It reminded me of Daddykins and Little Big, each cooling off on different sides of the house. Sometimes Danny hid out in my room, even slept in my bed, while I sat by the window monitoring Skyling transmissions.
In the morning we'd go to school, pretending we didn't know each other. My story was that I lived with my Aunt Gertrude in the trailer park and walked to school. I kept to myself, and no one bothered me, since the trailer park kids were like lepers. I befriended one girl, Sally, but dumped her when she said she didn't know a Gertrude in the park, having lived there her whole life. On the way home from school, Danny and me would meet in the grove near the McKennas' farm, always near the big boulder. Sometimes we'd hold hands, other times we'd hide behind the rock and make out, feeling each other under our clothes.
It went on this way for a couple of years. School, making out, chores, Skyling surveillance. I kept the data hidden from Danny, though he tried to get me to tell him what I was doing every night. Sometimes he'd try to stay awake and watch, but he always fell asleep. I'd join him as the sun came up, sleeping for a few hours beside his warm body, until he was waking me with soft kisses to get ready for school.
On the eve of my eighteenth birthday, I took the pickup truck out to the edge of Bobcat's property, along with the silver box, and opened it. I had swiped a bottle of whiskey from the liquor cabinet, and chased several burning gulps down with pop. On my lap I had the letter from Daddykins. On the seat Teddy kept me company, strapped in, hugging the shortwave, on low. I took a deep breath and tore open the letter.
Daddykins wasn't one for words. You're a grown woman now and you need to think about your future, how you'll live the rest of your life. You'll have to trust someone at some point, find someone to make a life with, maybe have a family of your own. But the truth is, you'll never be settled. There will always be a chance you might have to run—run from the ones you love. Or live like I did, without them really knowing who you are. The choice is yours. Do it wisely. I'm counting on you. Happy Birthday, Van.
I reread the letter; the tears ran down my cheeks without me wiping them. The whiskey took over and a sad song on the radio played my heartstrings. As the night grew darker, I made transmission notes in the Skyling Book. The Skylings were closer than usual, but my mind was elsewhere, on the future, on me and what I saw myself doing for the rest of my life. I didn't know where I belonged anymore.
Around midnight, Danny rode up on the tractor. He was wearing his baseball jersey, and took it off to show off his muscled chest, smooth and tanned, a man's body. He lingered at the truck window, head on his arms looking in, telling me about the game he'd played, how his team lost by one point. He shared some gossip, who was pregnant with whose baby and wouldn't be going back for senior year. Danny had been kept back once already and said if he didn't graduate next year he wouldn't bother. "Course, I don't mind being a dumb-nut the rest of my life, as long as I have a pretty wife. Like you." He kissed me.
Kissing led to groping and then to a rapid wildfire of out-of-control hands. Clothes came off and our fleshy bodies came together, sweaty and naked. I wrapped my arms around his neck as he bobbed back and forth. I felt the blood rush to my ears and the world for a brief second grew silent—the stars for the first time looked only like stars, and not Skyling craft.
As Danny slept, I stayed in his embrace, lying across the front seat. With Teddy as a pillow, I listened with half an ear to the shortwave. In the back of my mind I heard Daddykins saying, "Don't get lax, kiddo, or let your guard down even for a second." I tried to stay awake, but the heat from Danny's body and the relaxation from our lovemaking took me to the dreamworld, a place where Daddykins and Mommykins and me were all together again—but even in the dream their faces were faded.
In the morning, we drove back to the house and Danny announced to Bobcat that we were engaged. Bobcat broke open a bottle of beer, instead of champagne, and handed out cigars, even though Danny told him they did that only if there was a baby. Bobcat said, "All in good measure." The wedding was set for the following June after we graduated. Danny gave me a gold band to wear, his mother's, making me his. As the summer turned to fall, we spent our days making love and dreaming about what our lives might look like in the future. Danny always dreamed about us living in town, while I always saw us in some other part of the country—on the run.
Danny tried to find out more about me during those times. After we'd make love, when I fell asleep, he'd get up and poke around the room. I caught him a few times looking through the maps and once the Skyling Book, which I'd accidentally left out. When I hid everything, it only stirred in him more curiosity.
Our lives came to a head that October, Halloween to be exact. We skipped the parties and trick-or-treating and stayed in watching Red Dawn, my favorite movie. Patrick Swayze reminded me of Daddykins. I always took notes watching the movie, learning a new survival tactic each time, like peeing in the truck radiator or drinking deer blood for sustenance.
Near the end of the movie, when one of the Wolverines gets caught for being a traitor, Danny told me he unlocked the silver box that morning.
"How?" I asked.
"When you were sleeping, I took the key from around your neck."
"How much did you read?"
Danny shrugged. He had a look that said he'd read plenty, and that he thought I was crazy—plain and simple.
Over the movie we argued, first about his invasion into my privacy, second about the contents. He claimed as his wife I shouldn't keep secrets. He tried to say I was hiding an old beau. I told him he was crazy. The argument grew to full-on fighting, until Danny grabbed the Skyling Book and tried to rip it. I saw my entire life flash before my eyes, the endless nights of Skyling surveillance with Daddykins, his precious handwriting, and all our hard work.
The closest thing I had to a weapon was a pocketknife I kept on me at all times.
I turned it on Danny, who didn't seem frightened until I sliced his forearm, causing him to drop the Skyling Book. I scooped it up, still pointing the knife at him, telling him to get out. "You're one crazy bitch, Van." Danny left, slamming the door. I packed through the night—one ear to the shortwave—put the engagement ring on the bedspread, and left before dawn, heading east toward my old home.
The house was rundown and covered in moss, hidden in trees that tripled in size since I last saw them. The electricity was shut off. The kitchen smelled musty. I heard mice in the walls. The ceiling showed water damage. Despite its defects, it was home.
I spent the first few weeks cleaning and repairing what I could, a room at a time. First I made an area to sleep, then cleaned the kitchen so I could cool. It kept my mind off Danny, and being lonely, or the fact my stomach was bulging and my period was several months overdue.
As the cold weather came, I took to walking in the early dusk toward the lookout, also overgrown, but pretty much the same. Sometimes I brought a thermos of cocoa and sat with hand warmers, until I was shaking with chills. I watched the sky for craft more with a sense of nostalgia, for times spent with Daddykins now lost to memory.
By February, I had to cash in the gold to buy necessities for the baby's arrival. It was around this time a woman from the town began to make weekly visits to see me, after hearing about a young pregnant girl on her own. I had needed a friend, a mother, someone to tell me about the changes my body was going through, and what to do when the baby finally came.
Mrs. Rosenthal had been a mother six times and came for tea on Fridays. She brought with her a different baked goodie each time, along with things I needed, like secondhand clothes for the baby and me. Over tea, she used Teddy to show me how to hold the baby. Often Mrs. Rosenthal fished around about my family, asking questions, but I was short on answers. Other times, she inquired about health insurance and doctors, things I had no experience with. Then one day, Mrs. Rosenthal took me to the welfare agency in town and signed me up for aid, then took me to a doctor, where he told me I could expect to have a healthy baby girl any day.
Gradually, Mrs. Rosenthal's visits increased, and with it her demands, like making sure I didn't miss a vitamin. Or was it a special pregnancy pill—the bottle wasn't labeled. She often tried to get into the bedroom where I kept my data, the maps in plain sight, along with the transmissions. Sometimes she popped over unexpected, a head in the window, spying, or showing up unannounced late at night to see what I was up to.
Her behavior raised a flag for me. I read back on Daddykins's notes about what to look for if a Skyling had taken on human form. Invasion of privacy was top of the list. So was the encouragement of drugs or other mind-altering stimulants, which were used against humans to lower their guard in order to take advantage of them. After a thorough analysis of Daddykins's notes, I considered that Mrs. Rosenthal had to be a Skyling—and her mission was to steal my baby for the Skylings.
The night my water broke, I had gone for a walk to Area 54 to do some starcraft gazing.
It was Mrs. Rosenthal that suggested walking to bring on the baby. On my way back to the house, I noticed several Clairborn Valley Hospital security vehicles passing by. They turned down my street. Soon police sirens were cruising by, also going the same way.
I hurried, cutting through a neighbor's lawn. Mrs. Rosenthal was leading the police into my house—the light on in my data room. They'd also uncovered the secret underground workshop. Police officers carried out Daddykins's rifles. I imagined them finding our maps, our data, our life's work, every shred of it completely misunderstood. I started to run away, when my water broke, leveling me to the ground with contractions. One of the CVH guards saw me. It was over after that. All that Daddykins and me had worked on had been lost for good.
I gave birth to a baby girl—or so I was told. The doctors took her away before I had the chance to see her. A week later they told me my baby died. I knew then and there it was another Skyling hit. Somehow Mrs. Rosenthal—most certainly a Skyling—was in cahoots with the doctors, and stole her from me. But there wasn't much I could do about it inside. So I mourned her, like the rest of my family.
After a brief recovery, I was placed in a private cell overlooking the patients' cemetery in CVH. I wondered if I was in the high-security mental building or just one of the old brick and mortar kind. I was drilled by a series of doctors, and asked hundreds of questions, each time telling them my truth about Mommykins being taken when I was a child, and Daddykins taken when I was older, and Mrs. Rosenthal taking my baby, and being on the run, and the transmissions, the code—I tried to tell them about the code, but they wouldn't listen.
I started to crack a little, as the tests started, a few shocks here, pills there. Every day weakened my immunity more and more, until months had passed, winter turned to spring and over again, and I was no longer Van, but Kelly-Anne, a twenty-one-year-old girl who had a mother that left her husband and a father that went crazy. I believed everything the doctors told me, despite never seeing any physical proof, not even a newspaper clipping with their names, not an obituary, or even a town announcement. It was like they never existed at all.
Shortly after my twenty-second birthday, I was released to the halfway house on Bow Lane, two streets over from 54th Street. I made friends with a few of the girls, part of my new skills and rehabilitation. I continued to take long walks, usually out to the lookout. "You have to face it," the doctors told me. "Face the fact it was all make-believe."
In the autumn, I went up to the lookout for the last time. To my back stood the ominous CVH building. The red and gold leaves fluttered to the cold ground, and the full moon cast a glow on the Clairborn River. I lit a candle for my father. Witnessing the event was Teddy, now tattered and dowdy, a tear in the side. I placed his little arm in the candle flame, knowing I needed to let him go too, if I was ever going to heal and move on. The frayed strands started to burn, forcing me to grip tighter. That's when I felt something hard slip inside his body.
I tapped the flames out and pressed my fingers into the tear, ripping the seam open. I pulled out lots of stuffing and a strange metal box—a type of device. It was square and black without a line or blemish. It reminded me of the discarded debris Bobcat used to find with his metal detector. I shook and pressed on it, and finally dug my heel into it, causing it to light up a brilliant green, like a blinking Christmas light.
My father never told me anything about a box like this, but I knew by the way my hands shook that it wasn't made by humans, and more or less assumed it was a Skyling beacon—the last year of denial was suddenly all for nothing.
I stood up, raising my arm to throw the device as far away from me as I could, when the night sky illuminated with a white glare, a brilliant luster, blinding me. A heavy wind kicked up the leaves, branches, and even the water a distance away. The force knocked me to the ground. It was just like I remembered it as a small child, when my mother had been taken.
A sharp pain pierced my head, immobilizing my body. Teddy fell from my hand, as I ascended into the sky toward the Skyling craft—not round like my father thought, but more like a big skyscraper frame suspended in space. My last thought on Earth was whether or not I'd see my father and mother again.