“Oh my shit,” Brenda says. “Come look at this.”
The television shows two tall aliens. One snaps a flower off a magnolia tree in front of him and holds it to his face and the other ignores a reporter. His clothes flow in the wind even though there’s no wind anywhere else in the scene. Bad special effects.
I shrug. “Anybody good in it?”
“It’s not a movie, it’s the news,” Brenda says, and I go to sit beside her. We watch silently while the reporter says things like, “How did you get here?” and, “Did you come in peace?” I realize it’s Stephanie Finch, Mary’s daughter, the local reporter. She’s going to be famous because of this, I bet. Her eyes are huge under her carefully upswept hair, but the hand holding her microphone is steady.
The aliens look just like the movies—big black almond-shaped eyes, greenish-gray skin and oversized bald heads—but there’s no saucer. One moment there’s just magnolia trees and Stephanie and air and two aliens, and the next my eyes are hurting and something’s wrong with the world, and then it goes back to normal except there’s seven or eight more aliens standing there. They hardly seem aware of the reporter. The studio says, “Stephanie, is there any clue as to where these creatures are coming from?” and Stephanie says, “Don, they seem to be appearing literally out of thin air.” A little girl stands with a red bicycle between her legs, and Stephanie asks her for a reaction. She stares at the cameras for a moment and then starts to cry. The aliens ignore it all.
Finally the military shows up and Brenda says, “Good thing they weren’t terrorists,” but I shush her because it’s getting interesting.
Soldiers surround the area and shout at the humans to please step out of the line of fire. The girl cycles away, and the reporter moves out of the scene, the camera jogging up and down as the cameraman apparently backs away. A tank raises its turret and somebody is shouting something about surrendering and then the aliens just aren’t there anymore. Stephanie Finch interviews a private, who stutters a lot. Brenda says his briefing on What to Say to Reporters probably didn’t include the possibility of aliens.
On our second date, Brenda told me she didn’t know who her parents were. “I was found in a steel basket, like a giant lipstick tube sliced in half, outside a Circle K.” She rattled this off, like she’d said it hundreds of times before. “I don’t want to make a big deal out of it,” she said. “I just think you should know.”
I made a nervous joke about not having to come out to anybody, and she smiled, even though anybody else would have been offended. She told me about her adoptive parents, a linguistics professor at the local university and a veterinarian who specialized in what were called exotic pets, which was basically anything other than a cat or dog. She told me about the pet rabbits she’d had as a child, and how they would jump and twist around midair to express occasional joy. She told me about the animals they’d fostered, ferrets and hamsters and one duck. She told me she’d always wondered if she’d been just one more stray. She seemed to like the idea.
On our third date, she agreed to move in with me. These are the sorts of things you learn about a girl when you live with her: she likes the feel of melamine (I often come downstairs to find her sipping coffee and stroking the counter absentmindedly). She hates getting water on her face and gets mad if you splash her in the shower. She never goes swimming, but she loves the beach. In an argument, she’ll say the most hurtful thing she can think of to get you mad, and then tell you you’re acting too emotional to talk to and walk away.
“The damn things should be exterminated,” says the man on the television. Brenda is staring at him. He has dark stubble and nicotine stains on his fingers, and he’s wearing a gray dress shirt that used to be white, open at the throat.
“You still watching that?” I say, which is a dumb question but gets my disgust across. It’s been a week and the aliens haven’t reappeared.
Brenda doesn’t even look at me.
“Come on, honey,” I say in a softer voice. “Let’s go out.”
“Alright,” she says, but she doesn’t move.
“Buford Gavon, shown here in a clip from last night’s ‘Murfreesboro Around Town’ segment, has disappeared along with his truck,” the television said. “A truck of the same make in a different color is sporting his license plates. Stephanie, what are the police saying?”
I turn it off, and Brenda sits a moment longer looking at the blank screen, and then she shrugs and says, “when you’re gonna get hit by a car anyway . . .” and I say, “. . . you might as well stare at the sky.” It’s an old joke of ours.
When we met, she was staring at the sky in the middle of the street. I went up to her and said, “Hey, you’re going to get hit by a car.” When she turned, her smile knocked all of the smart-ass out of me. She pointed at the sky, and said, “hawk,” and sure enough, a hawk was wheeling overhead.
She was always looking at the sky, watching its blueness and remarking on the shapes of clouds, and keeping an eye out for birds. Tennessee gets storms of them, flocks of thousands, sometimes, and she got excited every time, like a child. Every time we went someplace, she’d see a hawk or sometimes a falcon, and she’d always point them out. I generally didn’t bother looking.
We both get dolled up. Brenda has huge gray eyes and a generous mouth. Her lipstick and nails are a shiny cherry red. She only wears black. Tonight, it’s a flippy sundress and low heels. I wear white and red. She tells me we look like an avant-garde painting.
I smooth her hair back from her face and make a ponytail in my fist, and then, because I think it will make her laugh, I move her head back and forth.
“Knock it off,” she says, and I guess I look disappointed because she smiles and her voice goes soft as she says, “You’re such a jerk.”
The next day something happens in China, but the news is full of words like “alleged” and “no comment” so we never do figure it out.
Conspiracy theorists declare the aliens to be a hoax perpetuated by Hollywood, and when nothing happens to them, consider that proof of their allegations. Other conspiracy theorists think the aliens came at the invitation of the government. Still others think they’re humans from the future. Area 51 comes up a lot, as does Roswell, as does Zeta Reticuli.
A biologist speculates on CNN that the aliens couldn’t be truly intelligent with such small skulls, and while she’s still on the air, she turns into a small mammal later identified as a long-extinct species of Lambdopsalis. Several political pundits, after a roundtable on Meet the Press advocating total nuclear annihilation of the aliens, are transformed into, or replaced by, potted plants. (Brenda and I are watching when that happens, and think it’s hilarious, and can’t stop laughing even though we know we should be scared.) Half of the residents of an orphanage in Sweden disappear.
“Why would they want a bunch of unwanted kids?” I ask.
“Why would they want Ann Coulter?” Brenda says.
The President stutters a lot at a press conference reassuring the nation. Girls and Boys Town asks for help finding seventeen runaways. Kim Jong-Il retires and North Korea peacefully elects a female Prime Minister, and we can’t decide if it’s the aliens or just, you know, independently weird.
Fourteen days after the first sighting, the aliens return. Brenda and I go to see them this time, along with half the town.
We can’t even get close. We park our car, and walk through streets turned into parking lots, and it’s like a party with so many people we know, but we can’t get past the fences and yellow tape and men in uniform. “Did you get a look at them?” Brenda asks Gail, and Gail says no, but she and Kenny were nearly arrested for trying to get past the barriers. Gail and Kenny are always nearly getting arrested for things, but we’re still impressed.
In the morning, the National Guard wakes us. Brenda burrows into my warmth and mumbles something about being late to school, so I’m the one who answers the door. We’re allowed to take whatever we can fit in our car, but have to leave within the hour. It takes us an hour and ten minutes to get ready. We get stuck on I-24. Trucks full of people who apparently don’t have their own cars pass us on the verge, and Brenda says, “Fuck this,” and pulls off the highway to follow them, and nobody stops us. Some other cars follow suit.
Helicopters are flying overhead. The radio says ninety percent of the population has been evacuated and the President has decided not to wait. I wonder out loud if the aliens have radios and Brenda presses the accelerator. Behind us a rumble sounds, and I twist to look, and Brenda says, “don’t!” and clutches my leg, taking her hand off the wheel, and I don’t tell her the radiation poisoning will get us anyway so we might as well see, but the mushroom cloud doesn’t come. Instead there’s a white puff like a hand hitting a bowl of flour, except it blocks out the sun for a second. Testing later reveals it to be butterfly scales, the dust that coats their wings so they can fly. Brenda starts to cry, and we park the car and ignore the honking behind us and I just hold her.
The radio says, “please hold please hold please hold appuyer sur la deux we regret to inform you no no no no wait,” and then falls silent. We flip the stations and don’t even get static.
I turn to look at Brenda behind the wheel and she’s missing. For one second I am jealous that she’s the one who gets to talk to the aliens, and then she is opening the door and climbing back in. She says, “That was weird,” and I say, “What, specifically?” and she opens her mouth and there’s a sound outside and we both turn our heads towards it, and then—
I am 25 and Brenda and I have been dating for three months. We’re coming home from a night of dancing, and she notices some seesaws and says, “Yesss!” and kicks off her heels and runs barefoot across the grass toward the swings. The park is rimmed with cherry trees, the sidewalk littered with their fallen blossoms. I navigate carefully after her, and climb on the swing next to hers. She is laughing and pumping herself higher and higher, her strong calves flashing in the light from the streetlamps, and the yellow silk of her scarf streaming behind her. Drunk, I keep my feet on the ground. She passes me grinning, and I start laughing along with her, and push myself back to launch, and there’s a sound—
I am 32 and married, so apparently I’m straight. My husband is snoring next to me and my arm is going numb under his bulk. He works as an insurance adjuster but wants to be an inventor, and I show my support by ignoring the smells from our garage. He’s a Libra and afraid of spiders. He’s classically handsome. When we have sex, he likes to suck on my earlobes. I’m a high school math teacher and I’m worried about some papers I didn’t get around to grading last night. I unjoint my arm at the shoulder, like a doll’s arm, and pull it out from underneath him, which would have been easier to do with two hands. I lay it on the bedside table and notice that instead of the moon, a giant ripe peach dangles in the sky. There’s a sound outside and my husband wakes and we turn our heads towards—
I am 83 and alone and sitting up, but still in bed. It’s daytime. Outside it’s ridiculously the future: gleaming metal and glass. A robot in a nurse’s uniform glides down the hall. “You’ve got to be kidding,” I say, and the patient beside me says, “. . .” but there’s a sound outside and I turn my head to—
I am the age I am now, but I’m blind and the air smells like sulphur. I’m sitting in a car. I know it’s our car by how the engine idles. Somebody is sitting in the driver’s seat, sobbing, and I think it must be Brenda and grope for her, but there’s nobody there. “Everything happens for a reason,” one of Them says on the radio, and the host chuckles smarmily the way they do and says, “And that was the London Philharmonic with their rendition of Baba O’Riley.” There’s a sound outside and I turn—
—sound like breaking furniture, splinters falling onto water, or trains from too close. The orchestra in a movie when the scene spins to indicate the passage of time or unconsciousness or hurricanes. Nobody could ignore a sound like this. It’s horrible.
Brenda says, “That was weird,” and I say, “What, specifically?” as I turn to look at her and she’s gone again. This time she doesn’t come back.
“Many of those close to the abductees at the time of the abduction report seeing the future and the past. How do you explain that, Dr. Hussin?”
Dr. Hussin is wearing a white smock over his black suit, as if somebody on television thought we wouldn’t believe he was a scientist otherwise. Under him is a box which says, “Dr. Amil Hussin, Exobiologist.” He says, “That’s an interesting question, Stephanie, although you’ll note that the futures they saw were very different from each other. Probably this was some . . .”
Stephanie Finch is nodding along. I turn it off. My stomach rumbles, loud in the quiet of the house, but I can’t think of anything I want to eat. Upstairs, a neighbor turns on their electric can opener. A dog barks. I turn the television back on. “They must have found what they were looking for,” Dr. Hussin is saying, and I start flipping channels.
The President is on one of them, apologizing for bombing Tennessee. Nobody seems to care. I keep flipping. Eventually I get up and make a sandwich.
People pretend that Brenda never existed, and when I mention her, as I do less and less frequently now, their mouths purse as they say things like, “Time heals all wounds,” which would be a stupid thing to say even if she were dead, which she isn’t. None of them are really thinking about her. They just want me to go back to normal so they don’t have to think about it. My mother tries to get me to go to an abductee support group, and when I won’t go, to Bible study for singles. My father pats my arm a lot during commercials. My friends are supportive for awhile, then impatient, then absent.
I spend most of my time watching the sky. The television says the hawks are gone now too, but I see them all the time, circling, searching for something on the ground.