The door’s already half open, so he can just nudge it with his foot and go on holding her. Roland steps over the threshold. Couple more steps, then he lays her down on the bed.
“Hey there, Mr. Mayfield.”
“Hey there, Mrs. Mayfield.”
She reaches out a slender arm the same pale blue as his tux and pulls him down into a kiss.
“Oh!” He jumps up. “I gotta call them!”
She goes out looking for something to eat. Roland twirls the phone cord around his finger and listens to the ring. He looks around the room. It’s pretty shitty. Besides the bed there’s a TV fixed to the ceiling, a fridge he can hear humming even from over here and a chair the same chocolate brown as the carpet. The phone he is calling is beige and sits on a small table next to the stairs in a house in a tree-lined street in Burbank. He imagines his mother putting down the duster and hurrying downstairs like he’s seen her do a million times before. His dad won’t be back from work yet.
“Hello?” Her voice is nearly drowned under crackles on the line. It sounds to Roland like applause, as if she were being filmed in front of a live studio audience.
“Mom, it’s me. I’m married!”
“I’m here. It’s—” A sniff, then, “Why—what a surprise! But who—”
“I know Mom. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you before—it was—oh! But you gotta meet her! We’re on our way to see you now!”
She comes through the door then, backwards, arms full, balancing two plates of burgers and fries. Two beers, glistening cold.
“Mom, I gotta go, I’ll—”
“Roland, what’s her name?”
He tells her. As he does, he knows he’s done this all wrong.
“That’s an unusual name. Is she from Europe?”
“Something like that.”
More silence. Then, “I love you, Roland. We’ll see you soon, OK?”
“No,” he says, but he doesn’t really mean it.
They’re lying in bed. She waves the last cold bottle in front of his eyes like a bell. “You want this?”
He sighs. “OK. So what do I need to do, just—”
She puts a hand on his cheek and sees through his eyes.
You hadn’t planned on getting married.
You’re driving west on I40, keeping a nervous eye on the gas. Your dad wired the money when you said you wanted to drive home instead of flying and the Datsun had seemed like a good idea back in Boston, but out here, somewhere between Amarillo and Albuquerque, the sun beating on the roof—
She appears out of the heat haze, pulling a suitcase with tiny wheels through the dirt at the side of the road. She hears you coming and puts up her thumb. She’s wearing a red checked shirt, tied high on her blue midriff. Her skin is the color of the sky and the realization makes you nearly crash the car right there.
You pull over, push your sunglasses up into your hair, trying to play it cool.
“I was cool.”
“No you weren’t.”
“Hey,” you say, and she smiles. Looking at her is like looking at the moon. Suddenly your mouth is too dry to speak.
“So where you going?” she says.
“West. Um,” you swallow. “California.” Your hands are slick on the steering wheel. “Um. Need a ride?”
She pulls her hand away. “How was that?”
His head tingles a little. It’s not an unpleasant sensation. “How do you—”
She shrugs and hands over the beer. “We all can. It’s just what we do.”
“Does it work the other way?”
She rolls over, straddles him, puts her palm on his chest and he gasps.
The light divides as it passes through the protection field so you sit, cross-legged, in a rainbow. The craft is an oval six feet wide and twelve long. The bow is fringed with raised nodes and from here it looks like you’re resting in an upturned palm.
Beyond the protection field is space, where they play, all around you, above and below, your brothers and sisters. It’s not a formation; more of a chaotic swarm as they dart and zig-zag across your field of vision. Ten million of them in this cloud and you know them all by name.
“This is you?”
She shakes her head. “No. My mother gave it to me.”
“So you’ve never been—”
“Up? Out? No.” She pulls on the beer. “I’m a natural-born American, same as you.”
He can’t stop laughing.
“God bless America,” he says, between stifled giggles.
She pours the rest of the beer out on his chest and he still can’t stop laughing.
Show Low, Arizona
“What can I getcha, hon?”
She flicks the menu with a blue finger. “Maple syrup.”
The waitress pops her gum and squints through the morning sun, bored. “Yeah, but on what? Pancakes? Waffles?”
“Just the maple syrup.”
“Hashbrowns,” Roland says. “And pancakes.”
She’s wearing denim pedal pushers and a man’s leather jacket over a plain white tee. A black mink pillbox hat, blonde wig, sunglasses. She’s fooling nobody. Two blond kids are climbing all over their seats, pointing and shouting, while their mom and dad deliberately stare at the table.
She swipes her finger across the plate to collect the last of the syrup. “We’re being followed. Two guys over there. Don’t look!”
He looks. Two men in grey suits, menus held in front of their faces, looking just as incongruous as the blue-skinned girl in the pillbox hat.
“What do we do?”
She touches his hand. Stay cool, says her voice in his head. She waves the waitress over. “Ma’am, where’s the bathroom?”
Roland carefully arranges a spoon on the table so he can see the men without turning around. There’s some movement when she gets up—the taller man elongates in the reflection, but then sits down again. Roland looks out the window, trying to act calm. There’s a grey sedan in the corner of the parking lot and now that he looks at it, he realizes he’s seen it before. It’s been following them since at least US-60.
She slides back into the booth five minutes later. “OK. Just follow my lead.” She calls the waitress over and asks for the check, smiles and tilts her head to the side. “Whatever you do, don’t look at them,” she whispers and then they’re up and walking. Roland stares at his shoes. The tiles on the floor remind him of the first Elvis Costello album.
He hears the bell above the door when they’re halfway across the parking lot but he’s still cool, doesn’t turn around, grabs the keys out of his jacket pocket. The ignition turns over first time and he’s ready to floor it, but she holds up a hand. “Wait.” She flips the cassette over and presses fast forward.
“Are you kidding? We gotta get away!”
She pulls a couple of spark plugs from her pocket and puts them in his lap. “We’ve got time. Ah—here it is.”
Tears For Fears. “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.” She turns it up. The drums come in and the Datsun’s tires kick up dirt. The guys in the grey suits finally figure out why the car won’t turn over and start running, but it’s too late. They’re left at the entrance to the parking lot, coughing up dust. She hoots and leans out the window. The wind grabs her hat and whips it behind them before she can catch it. It lies on the road like a stranded turtle.
“We can’t run forever. Keep going and we’ll get to California. Then what?”
They are lying on the hood of the Datsun staring up at the stars.
“We keep going.”
He snorts. “What? When we get to the end of the road we just drive off the Santa Monica pier?”
She passes him the bottle of Thunderbird and points a long blue finger at the center line of the blacktop. Then she points straight up.
After that she starts trashing televisions.
RCAs and Zeniths hit the floor. Magnavoxes and Mitsubishis spill across carpets like eviscerated corpses. She traces her fingers through television guts like an augur, picking out this capacitor, that resistor, leaving the rest, a trail of glass and plastic carcasses for the motel cleaning staff to find.
Roland goes to Radio Shack and buys a soldering iron, screwdrivers, some plastic boxes to keep track of all the liberated components that are rolling around the back of the car.
She sits cross-legged in the middle of the floor, soldering components to a breadboard. A thin line of smoke rises, but it’s not enough to trouble the smoke detector, assuming the room has one.
The air conditioning’s busted. She pushes up the red and white bandanna that’s holding her hair out of her face and rolls a Budweiser across her forehead. He lies on the bed and watches.
It’s an emergency beacon, crammed into the husk of a Panasonic cassette player. Once it’s finished, she’ll flip the switches duct-taped on the side and press the play button. Every now and then she turns it on and watches numbers scroll across the screen ripped from a Casio digital watch, scowls, turns it off again.
When she gets it right, it will signal the mothership. If there’s a mothership. She thinks there’s a mothership, but the smile she gives him, trembling slightly at the corners, shows she’s not completely sure.
“What was it like?” he asks. “In the facility?”
She doesn’t say anything for a long time.
“Cold,” she says.
They’re sitting outside the Wickenberg Tastee-Freez. Gotta be eighty in the shade. Her voice trembles.
“They keep it cold because it makes us slow. Messes up the communication too, but it’s how they make sure we don’t run.”
He looks out across the street, at the flag hanging limp on its pole, not sure what to say.
“When they need one of us, they come in to the habitat in these suits with thick gloves and helmets. They pick up whoever’s closest to be thawed.”
She strokes his arm and puts a picture in his head.
A suit that thick, you could probably walk across the sea floor in it. The guy steps over a bunch of blue-skinned kids, huddled together in a pile. They smile and scatter. They’re not afraid of him.
There must be maybe thirty, forty of them, lying on cots or standing in small groups. It’s a big room, amazingly tidy. The matte white paint that covers the floor, the walls, ceiling.
The government man reaches out to you and pulls you to the door. Nobody even bothers to look up.
Soon as you’re out in the hallway you can feel the warmth and your mind reaches out. There’s not a lot of color out here, but there’s always some: a bright yellow sheet of paper, attached to a brown cork noticeboard with a red pin; blue bubbles in the water cooler; the pewter of the wastepaper basket; yellow and orange and brown of a Reece’s Pieces wrapper. By the time you round the corner and another government man grabs your other arm, you feel like you can tear the whole building down.
The sense room is on the second floor, right in the center of the building. It’s built around a glass enclosure, top open to a sky that’s such a deep blue you gasp. The sun is sweet on your skin as you step into the sense cage and a government man closes the door behind you.
The men in suits go to the very back of the room, like that’s gonna stop you reading them. The one on the left is cheating on his wife: you sneer at him as you pull the images from him like it’s nothing. The one on the right is smarter. He’s wearing a Walkman under the helmet, blasting Christopher Cross. If you really cared you could get past it.
The door opens and the agent comes in, Williams. Not wearing a suit because A: there’s no way in hell he’d be caught in something so lacking in style and B: he doesn’t give a shit if you can see into his head. He wants you to see.
Williams opens the door to the sense cage. “How ya doin?” he says as he hands over a manila folder. His fingers brush yours as he hands the folder over and as he does you get a flash of a burned corpse lying in a Cambodian field.
Thinks he’s a bad-ass and maybe he is, but thing is he can’t touch your goodtime. Because you’re fully thawed now, and you could give a shit about this Company asshole when you can feel your consciousness rising, already a mile above Roswell.
You reach your warm mind down to your brothers and sisters in the cold room, feel them stir just a little. They reach back with their thin, cold tendrils of being. Soon, you hope, you’ll get the chance and run, smuggling out as many of them as you can carry in your mind. But not today.
You open the folder. Blurry black and white photos of a guy getting out of a car. The photo doesn’t show any more of the car than the top. “Lada sedan, registration number 5559 MH” you say, and Williams checks his cross reference sheet, nods and presses record. The twin wheels of the tape start spinning and you sit back in your chair and start talking Russian.
It’s a good few minutes later before Roland realizes she’s turned off the image and he’s just staring across the road. He doesn’t say anything for a long time.
Back in the motel room, she takes another look at the circuit.
“We gotta go back,” she says.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
“That’s one of them?”
He squints against the sun at a small black box on the top of the lamppost. There’s another one, every two or three posts, all the way up the street.
“Can’t we get one from somewhere less public? You said they’re all over the state.”
She shakes her head. “The boxes talk to each other. It might be easier to take one if it’s sitting all by itself further out from the facility, but it will leave a bigger hole in the mesh. They’d spot it straight away. This one’s so close to those others they might not notice.”
It’s 9:30 in the morning. The street isn’t exactly bustling with traffic, but there’s no way he’ll be able to get up there and pull it off without being seen.
He just stands there, rubbing his hands together.
“Come on, you pussy,” she says, and a couple of seconds later he’s got his legs wrapped around the pole, hanging on with one hand and smacking the black box with the tire iron from the Datsun. He can hear something now that he’s this close to it, a static hiss like the end of a tape. He keeps on hitting it and every time he does it seems like the sound travels all the way down the street. People are looking now, one guy in particular makes his heart freeze. He looks again. The guy is wearing a grey suit, but it’s not one of those grey suits. Roland keeps beating on the box.
“Come on,” she calls from the sidewalk.
One final whack and the box comes loose. It tumbles to the ground, trailing a couple of wires and crumbs of plastic. She catches it, but he trips when he drops down, crashes into her. The box flies from her hands and smashes on the street, loses a few more pieces.
“Hey,” someone shouts from behind him, some concerned citizen. She picks up the box and runs the other way—the car is just around the corner. He leaves the tire iron lying on the sidewalk and hobbles after her.
She’s jimmied the box open with a screwdriver before they’ve gone a couple of blocks. Roland steals a glance. The circuitry is like nothing he’s ever seen before. Rows and rows of black ICs, far smaller than a Z80 or 6502. “That’s the transmitter,” she says, pointing to something bronze and lotus-shaped.
The sun goes down. She’s still working on the box when he falls asleep. Her sobbing wakes him around three, but when he asks what’s wrong she doesn’t say a thing. Then he notices she’s kicked the pieces of the box across the floor.
“You don’t really love me. You just love the idea of me.”
“That’s not true.”
“Yes it is. Too many hours lying in front of the television watching Star Trek when you were ten.”
“That’s not—” He starts again, puts his hand on her shoulder. “Look at me. You can read my memories, sure. But not my feelings. I love you. I will never leave you.”
“Yes you will.”
Their first argument. He’ll remember it, years later, while he’s sitting on the bleachers, watching his nephew’s little league game. Only then will he realize she started it deliberately, wanting to turn him against her, just a little. To try and make it easier, somehow, when the men in the grey sedan caught up with them. He’ll sit there, staring into space while his nephew makes his first home run, and nearly miss the whole thing. His brother will elbow him in the ribs. He’ll snap back just in time to see the boy slide in to home.
The men in grey suits come the next day.
8 a.m. Air conditioning busted in this room as well, so the window has been open all night.
The men in grey cut the engine before they pull in and let the car roll to a stop in the middle of the forecourt. But the squeak of tires wakes him up. When the car door opens she sits straight up in bed. A couple of seconds later she runs for the bathroom, but it’s already too late.
An agent kicks in the door with a grey vinyl zip-up shoe, lobs a black ball on the bed. Roland dives away thinking tear gas, but nothing comes out except a high-pitched whine.
Then his face is pressed down into the carpet and he’s sucking in years of dust and cigarette ash and there’s an agent shouting in his ear, only he can’t hear anything. He can feel the agent’s breath on his throat and the smell of coffee mixes in with the carpet filth, but there’s no sound.
He twists his head and sees an agent emerge from the bathroom, holding her in his arms. She’s not moving.
Roland struggles to get to his feet, nearly does, even though the agent’s knee is crushed into his spine. He lashes out and up. He can’t see, but he can feel his knuckles connect with something. He can’t bring his arm back down—the agent grabs his wrist gives him some kind of Jujitsu twist and suddenly Roland is lying on his back. There’s gotta be twenty agents in the room now, all wearing grey. The glasses of the agent straddling him are hanging askew, one lens missing. Lucky punch, Roland thinks, then the agent gives him one of his own and—
Roswell, New Mexico
“Can I see her?”
“We’ve been through this.”
The man on the other side of the table is tall and heavily tanned. His sunglasses are mirrored, just like the wall to Roland’s left. A badge is pinned to his shirt giving his name, Jergensen. “FAA” is printed discreetly below that, along with a silhouette of an alien head: the distended forehead, tapered chin and empty black eyes. The lie they want the public to swallow.
Roland’s jaw, his whole head actually, is throbbing. They gave him some Excedrin a while back. It’s not working.
“Can I see her?”
The agent takes off his glasses and rubs the bridge of his nose. “The United States Government does not recognize the existence of extraterrestrials nor their presence on Earth.”
“She’s my wife, dammit!”
“No. She’s not.”
Roland clenches his fist and looks towards the floor-to-ceiling mirror on the right wall.
The other agent is older. His name badge says Owens, no alien head on this one. He rubs his hands through his salt-and-pepper crewcut. “Look son, I’m not gonna bullshit ya. I’d like you help you. Really, I would. But it’s the rules, ya know?” He shrugs and gives him the old waddayagonnado grin and Roland wonders if he understands somehow what it’s like to be in love with a woman who holds her mother’s memories of flying between the stars in a craft shaped like an upturned palm, who can read his thoughts and sings along with Tears for Fears and leaves a trail of disemboweled televisions the length of New Mexico.
And just like that, it’s all too much. “No,” he says, trembling, “I don’t know. You have no right to keep—” He pounds his fist bam! on the metal table. “You have no right to keep them locked up like that!”
He stands up, kicking the chair across the linoleum.
“Sit down, Mr. Mayfield.”
He’s pacing the room, next to the mirror. From this close, he can see shadowy people on the other side of the glass, and he slams into it with his shoulder.
Owens stands. “Mr. Mayfield, you need to calm down now.”
If this was a movie he’d be strong and cool and powerful. But he’s crying. His nose is running and he can’t stop shaking.
“You keep them like animals!” He nearly trips over the chair and kicks it away into the wall.
“That’s not true.”
And suddenly the room’s full of agents. Front of the pack is a guy with butterfly stitches under his right eye, the guy he hit back in the motel. Roland recognizes him from the vision she gave him in Wickenberg, flinches at the sense-memory of burned flesh. Williams smiles slowly like a leopard. “What’s her name, Mr. Mayfield?”
“Your wife.” He spits the words out. “What is her name?”
Roland opens his mouth, stops. He can’t remember.
“Nasty little trick that, putting words in your head. Did she ever tell you about the shared mind, Mr. Mayfield? The dynamic transfer of consciousness? We’ve got a mesh thrown over them like a net around here, but soon as you two got out of range, the blues started collapsing. Still got three in comas now. You just took America’s most important strategic asset for a joyride.”
Roland crumples in the corner and covers his face with his hands.
They throw him in a holding cell where, somehow, he falls asleep.
When he wakes up his dad is standing in the doorway, wearing a grey suit and a visitors badge.
“Come on son. Time to go.”
Whole way out of the facility his dad grips his arm. People wave at his Dad as they go. “Hey, Bill!” someone calls out as they cross the cafeteria and his dad winces, pushes him down onto the nearest spare seat. “Don’t you move a fucking muscle” he whispers into Roland’s ear, and it’s the first time he’s ever heard his father swear. Dad walks over to a man with a grey-sided army issue crewcut.
Roland picks up fragments:
“Don’t know how you do things over at Lockheed, but—”
“I swear, he had no idea.”
“Crissakes, Bill, what if the Russians had got hold of it? You know how close the DCI came to shutting the whole thing down last year? We can’t afford this kind of shit!”
Roland gets it then. If the DCI shut down the facility, what are they going to do with the aliens? She never had a chance. The white room is as good as it gets.
Dad drives the rental car from Roswell to Albuquerque. They reach the motel and Dad picks up Roland’s stuff from the desk, the car keys for the Datsun.
They follow the I40 for the rest of the day and into the night. Roland jerks awake as they pull into a motel at 2 a.m.
Dad pulls a pillow from the bed and ambles over to the couch. “You take the bed,” he says, the first thing he’s said since Roswell.
“I’m sorry,” Roland says, no more than a whisper.
“Get some sleep.” Dad says and turns off the light.
A few minutes after that he hears his dad pick up the phone. “I’ve got him,” he says, then “yeah.” He can hear his mother still talking as Dad hangs up the phone. The room is completely dark except for the floating orange star that is the end of Dad’s cigarette.
He’s too tired to cry.
His mother is running towards him before he’s even got the seatbelt off, yanks him out of the car and wraps him in an embrace like a prizefighter.
“I’m sorry,” he gasps, between great heaving sobs like the end of the world. “I’m sorry.”
He lifts his head from her shoulder and looks down the tree-lined street. He can hear shouts from a few houses away—the Dorset twins, playing under the sprinkler. There’s a Cessna buzzing above, pulling a Coke banner. The sky is the color of cigarette smoke. He’s home.
His mother puts her arms around him and takes him into their house and when he looks up twenty years have passed.
He goes back to college but drops out six months later; wanders aimless, falling in and out of work and relationships. If he’d stayed in college he could have been working at Apple or Microsoft, but he ends up at Radio Shack, walking between shelves of resistors and capacitors and batteries. He gets married again—his parents, divorced now, sit smiling in the front row.
There are no children. The marriage falls apart after ten years in the Denny’s on Alameda, between the Surf ‘n’ Turf and the Ice Cream Sundae. She takes the keys to the car and goes and part of him knows he should follow, but he sits as the late afternoon sun sparkles the dust motes and watches her go.
Twenty years pass and nothing changes.
Roland puts the beer down and takes another look at the cassette deck splayed on the workbench. Smoke rises from the soldering iron like the cigarettes that were the death of his father. He pokes it at a fat gob of solder and works a resistor out of its grip, trying yet another connection, another configuration. The innards of the black box are in the tackle box at his side, each piece labeled. He’s learned enough over the years to identify most of the components but he’s still never seen anything like the lotus-shaped thing in the center of the board.
It’s a warm August evening so he’s got the garage door open to the street. He’s concentrating so intently he doesn’t notice the car pulling into his driveway, doesn’t turn around until he hears the driver get out and walk over to him.
First thing he notices when he turns around are those grey shoes.
There are a few wrinkles, but not many. A white scar beneath his right eye. Apart from that, Williams looks exactly the same. There were entire years when Roland couldn’t sleep, stayed awake with his rage, imagining what it would feel like to smash this man’s head against one of those white walls. But now here he is and Roland just stands there.
Williams sees the electronics spread across the bench and grunts. “Never got it to work, huh?”
Roland says nothing.
Williams walks closer. “Don’t worry, Mr. Mayfield. I’m not here in an official capacity. Retired.”
“Retired?” His voice no more than a whisper.
“You want to see my bus pass?”
Roland finally closes his mouth.
“We closed it down in the nineties. The Roswell facility. After the wall came down,” he shrugs, “by then it wasn’t working so well anyway, the listening. Maybe they’d been here too long. Whatever it was—”
“What happened to them?”
“Moved to another facility. We had three others besides Roswell. Budget cuts. Then one day they just—went away.”
Roland closes his fist tighter around the soldering iron. “What do you mean?”
Williams doesn’t flinch. “Keep your powder dry, son. We didn’t do anything. I saw the security camera footage myself. One moment they’re there, the next—” he raises his hands like birds. “Guess they finally found a way home.”
“She thought there was a mothership.”
“She was there, at the end,” Williams says, answering the question Roland doesn’t have the courage to ask and he gasps, a half sob. Maybe she’s out there now, surfing between the stars.
The other man looks down, fishing in the pocket of his suit. “Everything’s classified, of course. They could put me away for what I’ve already said. But she’s your wife.”
Williams tosses something and Roland catches it without thinking, rolls it over in his hand. The same copper material as the lotus on the circuit board. This piece is in the shape of an upturned palm.
“The boxes are dampeners. You might have had that radio working the whole time but without that, the signal wouldn’t get further than the door.”
“And with it?”
Williams puts his sunglasses back on.
“Have a nice life, Mr. Mayfield.”
Roland watches as Williams drives away, imagines he can hear it all the way to the interstate.
He turns back to his workbench.