"WATCHER OF THE SKIES"
by David J. Schow
It was hot. It was summer. It was dreary. It was not California. It was a farm in Kansas and it sucked, wind-tunnel bigtime. Kansas was as flat as a day-old Coke and the most interesting thing about the region was that occasionally a tornado would rip through and destroy everything in sight, after which people would moan that at least they didn't live in California, with all those earthquakes. They said crap like that all the time, like robots, and most of them had never even been to California.
Denny had not witnessed any twister action yet, although he was kind of looking forward to it. Only on the news had he seen the sort of blank-faced, inarticulate all-Americans who now surrounded him as "neighbors." He had been forced to leave the West Coast behind for all this wonderfulness. Left glorious Agnes Smith School -- good ole A.S.S. -- and his fourth grade pals, all of whom had promised to write letters or send e-mail; none had, so far. It had been more important to Denny's mom and dad to get out of the rat race, whatever that was, and embrace fields of amber waving grain, or something. All it meant to Denny was that when school rolled around, a month from right now, he'd have to stand out on a dusty road and catch a bus, apparently until he died of boredom. Out here, on the hunk of farm his father had wrangled through a bank foreclosure, the houses were so far apart you needed a telescope to see details. Denny had a telescope, but kept it pointed at the sky, of which there was a great deal in Kansas. The neighbors did not interest him. They smelled odd, like the area itself, tended to grin too large whenever the topic of conversation was "Dennis," as only the adults called him. They wanted to know all kinds of nosy crap that was none of their business. Denny had liked it better in Huntington Beach, where the concept of building security and minding one's own business was a city given. He disliked his parents' new neighbors, except for Grace, who was a girl from one of the houses Denny did not care to spy upon.
Grace was a year older than Denny, and her last name was Pynchon (about which Denny might have made a great pun if Grace was, well, a guy), and she had just sort of shown up unannounced one afternoon in the middle of summer, shortly after Denny's family had assumed residence. She had not, so far as Denny could remember, ever been invited, but that was okay, because she had asked Denny if he knew how to drive a tractor, then showed him. It had been the first time Denny had ever been behind the wheel of anything, and to date, no one but Grace and Denny knew about it, which demonstrated another valuable skill -- Grace could keep her face shut about potential trouble stuff.
Grace was interesting, for a girl.
She turned out to be a displaced urban dweller, from Dallas, and this helped along their fast and easy bond. Somehow farm life had not driven her crazy, and Denny found it easy to sit in the fork of a tree and talk about stuff until it got dark. Grace was a girl; she couldn't help that, but still, she was interesting. She wanted to study to become a veterinarian; her description of cows giving birth was so gross that Denny felt like writing it down, maybe for Hallowe'en.
Once, in the road near the mailbox -- where Denny would eventually have to wait for the Hell-bus to school -- he and Grace found a blacksnake that had been run over. It was still vaguely alive.
"Can we fix him up -- you know, splint him, or something?"
Grace squatted down as an adult expression grooved her brow. "No, his back's not broken; it's smashed. If we could somehow, I dunno, cut out the smashed part and splice him back together, it might work, but ... look at him."
The snake was too weak to strike or defend, but it hung on to what remained of its life, trying to make its sundered body work, trying to figure things out so it could continue. When Denny looked back up, Grace had returned with a formidably-sized rock.
"Sorry, little guy," Grace said. "But if he's in pain, this is better."
And before Denny could wrap words around his disbelief, Grace crushed the snake's head with the rock. Just one hit -- bang -- and it was roadkill.
"I know it looks bad," she said. "Maybe we can save the next one."
Denny tried hard to think all this through. "Well ... if he really was in a lot of pain ..."
"He was hurting, Den, you can't say he wasn't hurting." Only Grace ever called him "Den." It did not make him feel low, the way he felt when adults called him "Dennis." It felt kind of comfortable. Denny kept this to himself, and never told anyone.
"If it was me, I'd be hurting." That context seemed to solve things for him. Sometimes Grace seemed a decade older, and privy to all sorts of unfathomable knowledge.
Denny showed Grace the stars, which was pretty easy because one thing farm property had -- or lacked -- in comparison to the city grid was a different relationship with the sky, due to the absence of ambient light. More stars showed up, and the moon seemed clearer and closer. He was showing off when he described the difference between a "waxing gibbous" moon and an "old crescent" one, but Grace smiled and seemed to appreciate the details. Reciprocally, she could pronounce all the most tongue-twisty dinosaur names.
The next wounded animal they chanced across was a sparrow with a cocked wing, flopping around on the ground below a tree with no nest in it. This patient, they were able to treat and shoebox and eventually release, after a convalescence of about a week, during which Denny got pointers on how to handle wildlife which didn't consider human contact such a swell idea. He learned firsthand that the crap about mother birds rejecting young that had been handled by humans was just that, a plain old pile.
Whenever Denny's parents asked if he "liked" Grace, Denny would respond that she was okay and either change the subject or ignore further inquiry. His parents usually weren't interested beyond the first question, which they asked as if by habit, not interest. They were beginning to sound like the local hayseeds and nitwits usually encountered during grocery runs to town, the ones who babbled on about getting real dirt between their toes and other assorted madnesses. For one thing, it seemed to Denny like his parents were talking more and more lately about food.
"You can really taste the care and labor that went into this tomato," was one his mother spouted, to which his dad had replied that home-grown corn on the cob "was the food he was born to eat." Denny missed spicy curly-fries on demand. Worse, Denny was slightly worried that his mom and dad were losing their friggin minds, and if this sort of creeping senility continued unchecked, it might cause them to ignore the dangers of tornadoes. Even worse than that, it might infect Denny in some insidious, horror-movie way, and then he'd be rattling on about chaffing the winnow, or winnowing the chaff, whatever that meant.
He spent limited time with his computer, or online. The computer, games and all, was too much like a TV screen (albeit an interactive one). Dad was talking about a dish that could pull a billion channels, and that was intriguing to Denny principally because yanking TV right down from space itself raised the possibility that he might be able to tune in programs or news from California. Computer time, though, usually stranded you at a desk or table, staring at yet another screen, and instead of seeing a window to the global village, Denny perceived these various screens and monitors merely as boxes, with only one way in and one way out, and a box could form an efficient and attractive trap. He knew better than to try to force net geeks into becoming surrogate cronies. Computers were, by nature, insincere.
Denny owned a fair amount of paperbacks, largely science fiction, horror and fantasy stuff with lurid covers, most of which he had acquired but never read. Before summer's end, he discovered how to elude time, up in one of his trees, inside the safety of a book. Books were somehow freer; he could hold them to the wind and watch the pages riffle; they didn't have to be plugged in or booted up or keyworded. They activated as soon as he looked at them, and didn't nag him with an onscreen clock. Now they interested him precisely because it was the reverse of what most people expected their kids to do. His own parents hugged and nodded at each other, believing that their new agrarian wonderland was causing their son to embrace the joys of literature. As usual, they were totally clueless.
Grace was the only other person he knew who had read some of the same books. It seemed highly unlikely that with all the books in the world, throughout all of history, that very many people would have read the same books no matter how best-sold such books might have been. So Denny and Grace developed a trade-off system that permitted Denny to pass on books, once he'd finished them, to Grace, and vice-versa, so that way they'd have something to talk about. When she tried to outfox him by giving him an elementary book on pet care and emergency treatment, Denny returned fire with an astronomy guide, complete with star maps. Pretty soon Grace had what she called her MASH unit going in a backyard shed, with Denny as her intern, and she had also learned how to identify several of the Northern Hemisphere constellations by sight with the help of Denny's telescope.
Two weeks before the start of the school semester, Grace showed up to announce that her family was moving to San Francisco. Her father had gotten some sort of newer or better job, and so everybody had to leave -- Grace included. Denny had never exactly nailed down what it was Grace's dad did for a living. His own father was a graphics designer who spent most of his time drawing stuff or arguing about time or money on the phone.
Grace had come bearing a big cardboard box with only three flaps. "My dad says I can only take one box of my most valuable stuff, because we're going in the car, and it's mostly full." Most of her leftover stuff was conferred to Denny's stewardship, and he understood this as both duty and honor. To eyes outside of their friendship, Grace's forsaken property had little apparent value -- books, odd rocks and shells, a cracked hand mirror, playing cards bound up in fading velvet, old library cards, all the things that added up to the timeline of Grace's past. She was a kid, like him, and had not accumulated much history. Denny would treasure this legacy until the box was accidentally lost in yet another move.
"And here's something extra-special," Grace said, presenting a small packet composed of funny pages gift wrap.
Denny was careful with it, and good thing, too, because it turned out to be a meticulously-cleaned blacksnake skull, with a lock of Grace's hair attached by a small black ribbon.
"I'm really gonna miss you," he said, surprised to hear his own voice lock up.
Grace hugged him and said, "I won't be gone forever, Den." At that moment, Denny realized that she, too, would never write, but the circumstances existed to interpret this, later, as something apart from the usual betrayal or disappointment.
She walked away, and the last thing Denny saw was the top of her head bobbing in and out of sight above a row of unharvested fallow cornstalks. By the time he tried to track her progress with the telescope, she was undetectable, and by the time he got out of bed the next morning, Grace's family had cleared out. Before the realty signs could be posted, Denny visited the vacant farmhouse and the now-patientless MASH unit for wounded animals. A rabbit had taken up residence in one of the crated cubicles, and Denny fed it regularly enough that it did not flee at his approach. He named it Bob, because that was an unlikely name for a rabbit.
He discovered his first casualty exactly one week after Grace had moved away; he had noted the date -- a Friday -- precisely for that reason. She had left on a Friday, so that Saturday, Denny said to himself, a week ago on this same day she was still here. It became his daily mantra, with a spoilage date of exactly seven days. On the first day he could no longer say it, he chanced across a large black rat which had apparently suffered a narrow escape from some predator; a large bite out of its hindquarters had crippled its right rear leg and taken away about a quarter inch of tail. Denny kept it at a distance because it would naturally snap and panic, and patiently managed to get it dressed while wearing welder's gloves. After it had been caged and fed and spent a couple of days healing, it became curious if not friendly, and Denny decided to call this guy Pudley, for no reason at all.
That Pudley had appeared exactly one week after Grace's leavetaking was timely enough for Denny to consider it A Sign. Of ... something. An omen. A luck portent. He was flexible, because he needed notions and foreshadowings to ring true enough, at least, to reassure him as more and more of his childhood leaked away and turned vague.
Denny felt like a condemned man in the death house, the ticking clock on his freedom being the calendar for August. Each day was a box one and a quarter inches square; each box crossed out was one day closer to the purgatory of school in a new town that wasn't even close to a major city. Several x-ed out days after Pudley had checked in, a woman from the school board showed up at the house, introduced herself as just-call-me-Stephanie, and Denny learned that she was a counselor at the school, and that his parents had set him up for this little unwelcome surprise.
"I always like to meet the new kids before the semester starts," Stephanie explained. She seemed far too cheery for her job. "Especially the kids from out of town, who haven't grown up around here." Denny let most of this simply wash over him, noting with secret amusement his Dad's discreet interest in just-call-me-Stephanie's legs. She was not wearing a wedding ring. Denny decided to liven up the proceedings, and deviate from his plan to provide simple, monotone answers to the usual nosy question about his life and interests.
"How come you're not married?" Denny said. It seemed to him that most people arrived in this neck of the woods married already, since it was next to impossible to meet actual humans out in the boonies.
"I've already been married," she said, not unhappy about it at all, her gaze sharpening and seeming to perceive Denny for the very first time. "Why, is that a proposal, Dennis?"
"He's moving fast," Dad cut in. "His girlfriend just left town."
"Oh, you must mean Gracie Pynchon," Stephanie said ...
... and Denny's plan had backfired, and now he was blushing, and Dad and just-call-me-Stephanie were off to the races at his expense, and he was required to sit and eat the whole bowlful until the counselor finally showed a little mercy, gave his Dad a business card, and left. Everybody knew about Grace, it seemed, and Denny didn't know anybody.
Denny's parents rarely stayed up till midnight, and his own bedtime was approximately 10:30. It became a personal game to see how late he could push the limit, whether through con artistry (like getting official permission to watch a show that started at ten, but didn't finish until 11:30) or subterfuge (like reading past curfew by flashlight). Once his parents' room had gone dark, Denny could gamble the boundaries a bit further by chancing trips to the kitchen, or sneaking out one of several windows to watch the skies in the deeper dark of true nighttime. That was tonight's gig. Denny slithered free in jeans and a sweatshirt, because the nights were starting to cool.
He scanned the heavens, his mind attaching names to almost all the visible clusters of distant suns. He picked out the winding path of Draco, the Dragon. A more powerful telescope might permit him to discover a hitherto unseen pattern, and name it after a girl he knew, maybe. He cleaned the reticule and made adjustments. There was a glare edging in from the north. If he'd been in the city, he'd've dismissed it as a passing helicopter or a landing plane.
But it did not pass. It just got brighter. The stars vanished into lavender, like twilight. When Denny looked up from the lens, the whole world snapped to an endless chromium white, and thunder juggernauted in to chase the flash, and he fell on his ass, knocking over his telescope, utterly blinded, thinking this must be a twister!
The packed dirt rippled as he pushed himself up, still groping, now thinking earthquake! He fell down again, weaving like a drunk. Part of the tipped-over telescope's tripod jabbed him in the ribs.
Then came an explosion he could only hear, not see, a vacuum th-pop that sucked away the air and refilled it with the sound of something blowing all to hell not very far away. Now we're being bombed!
His eyes sought anything, seeing only the afterimage of a sulphur match scratching across the night sky, tearing it open, setting it afire.
He could smell smoke, and turned soil, and hear a rainlike sound he correctly guessed was a lot of dirt pattering down. He could feel it hitting his face and arms. Finally his eyes locked on a yellow trapezoid of light that told him his parents were awake, and coming through the kitchen, and would any second discover their son sprawled out in the yard. Then he saw the lowering orange shimmer cast across the fields as Grace's recently-vacated house went up in flames.
Denny heard his dad mutter about Jesus and God and grab the nearest phone to make the same call everyone else had to be making while Mom whooped once in fright before Denny actually stirred and evinced signs of life; both his parents were depressingly predictable. The fire washed big enough to rumble the ground and drive all the birds crazy. It was several acres across before the first trucks showed up in response, and, with his parents, Denny got close enough to realize grimly that Bob the rabbit and Pudley the rat were probably toast. By morning the blaze was extinguished and the air smelled like soot and ashes all around. Denny was not able to escape the overprotective watchfulness of his mom and dad until the next day leaned on toward evening.
What he glimpsed from his kitchen window and back yard seemed even more mysterious. Groups of local men were combing the fields. He dragged his telescope upstairs in order to look downward, his interest now in the earth instead of the stars. Quite a few of the men had guns. Their manner reminded Denny of a nature channel clip of bush drovers forcing some poor beast to bolt. They probed burnt wreckage and unscathed fields alike, some with long sticks, some with their gun barrels. Their method and their body language bespoke bloodlust.
"It's probably the most exciting thing to ever happen here," Dad observed. "I've already heard somebody say it was a UFO. You wait and see -- within 24 hours we'll get a story that someone was kidnapped by aliens." He shrugged at Denny as if the posse's rationale was unavoidable, as if it just came with the territory. "People here aren't very sophisticated, kiddo. They look badder than they really are."
Denny did not believe in UFO abductees. Flying saucer guys snatching up hapless humans had to be a lot like fishing, and if the way aliens kept throwing humans back was any indication, then that TV show about them wanting to eat us was all wrong.
Frustratingly trapped in his own house, Denny concluded that a meteor had hit, which permitted him to decide upon two objectives: One, he wanted a piece of the space-rock; Two, he needed to perform a service, if not a burial, for the lamented and probably way-dead Bob and Pudley.
He was just beginning to feel better about the whole incident when he heard the first gunshot. The report, having no place to go but outward, expanded and reverberated across the plain and laid ice along the nape of Denny's neck. In the city, faraway gunshots were common; a background detail that rarely touched you. Here, they came freighted with completely different information, and Denny was suddenly topped off with all kinds of fear.
He scanned in sloppy wide arcs with the telescope, trying to zero-in on any commotion. He caught a cluster of gimme caps, just the tops, in the middle of an expanse of cornstalks, just as a second shot was fired. As he focused, he could see a swirl of gunsmoke escape from the group like a guilty secret. The caps, just the tops, milled about and then separated, voiceless, too far away to be heard.
"It was probably some wounded animal," Mom said. "Too wounded to save."
"Maybe the next one can be saved," said Denny, just as new shots made them both flinch. Two flat cracks, close together, like plywood slapping concrete, distant and ominous. Not friendly, not homey, not countrified.
It went on that way for the better part of the afternoon. Right when Denny figured this badness was done, another shot would snap in the distance. This was not aberrant behavior, or an isolated incident; this was recurrent and unpredictable. The suspense became pretty rude, and Denny began to doubt that shit shoveled by Dad about how their neighbors weren't as bad as they seemed.
Not knowing or seeing more was frustrating. Was it safer in the house, not knowing? Absolutely.
That night, later than usual, Denny dead-reckoned his way toward Grace's long-gone MASH unit. A mild breeze found no resistance on the plain, and distributed the tang of soot and cinders everywhere. Scorched vegetation was rattled by vague haunts, or night air, or mere imagination, as Denny ghosted past, not using his flashlight. He understood a little better why farm people seemed so superstitious.
Nothing remained of Grace's former home except the two brick chimneys and the slab foundation. The barn and outbuildings had been mostly flattened or burned. The area was not what Denny had fantasized the impact site of a meteor should look like.
A weird lowering noise eased through the darkness. It reminded Denny of one of those toys you spin above your head in order to vibrate a rubber band with air current, only this noise was modulated. Like a voice. Creepy and odd enough to transfix him, to force him to see how exposed he was out here, to scare him in advance as to the horrors he might glimpse now, should he aim his flashlight in the direction he suspected.
"Is anybody out here?" He marshaled his wits and repeated himself, this time with his voice.
Thudding, in the burnt grass -- not nearby -- as the weird sound snaked past again, giving Denny a spot on which to home. He pointed his lamp. Whatever was hiding, in the cornstalks beyond the burn line, sounded as large as a horse falling over.
Then another noise, behind him, launched him clean off the ground with a yelp. He almost left his shoes behind. Something was so close that he could feel the sound touching his back.
He landed, twisted, tried to run, got tangled up in his own legs and came down too hard on one knee, just as he caught a flash movement, deep in the right corner of his vision.
Something was regarding him from the cover of the charred matchstick lean-to that was all that remained of Grace's MASH shelter. The eyes that monitored him were scary and featureless, like black sunglasses, metallic oblongs in which Denny had glimpsed his own reflected light.
Conversely, the new sound had been a melodious trilling like the coo of a dove, but deeper in register. Not scary. It had shocked the crap out of Denny anyway.
"Don't be scared," said Denny, very scared himself.
The eyes regarded him. Easier to read emotion in a gas mask or space helmet, thought Denny. It seemed to be an animal about the size of a raccoon or possum, standing on its hind legs maybe, judging by the height of the eyes, if that was what they were. Higher.
The trill glided up the scale, more subtle now, harder to hear.
Denny did his best to keep the tremble out of his voice. "You can stay in there, but there isn't anything to eat, and in case you haven't noticed, staying out here can get you killed."
He remembered what Grace had shown him about offering food. It was a long waiting game but it usually worked. Food without a trap equaled trust -- enough trust, at least, to get a grab on the average mammal and have a hope in hell of repairing its damage. Which was a sensible plan, provided you came packing snacks, and Denny had zero. He did not want to risk flashing the light directly at his quarry, which would only spook it.
He carefully crabwalked a couple of paces nearer and the blank eyes stayed put. "Come on. At least let me know if you're hurt, or what."
The trill that came in response, Denny noticed, was different -- spaced out, sort of mimicking the cadence of his own speech. Not the kind of noise made by an animal. Denny's mouth was amazingly dry, and he wished he'd brought his damned canteen, and his hand automatically began excavating his jacket pocket in search of ...
Sugarless gum, the kind that doesn't stick to the teeth. Adequate to the needs of a treat, or bait.
He carefully unwrapped a stick and put it forth, whispering c'mon c'mon come ONNN! Did the oblong eyes looking back at him seek some confirmation of non-hostility? Please don't eat me? Again, the cooing sound, not unlike that of a child playing alone, thinking itself unobserved.
"Look, here's a light, see? It's not going to hurt you." He clicked on the flash but covered it with his fingers, keeping it pointed away, more to demonstrate the light. He crept closer to the stick of gum, then scooted the gum forward another foot.
The little critter stepped toward the pool of light. It had a football-sized body roughly shaped like a cashew, fat end highest. Four multi-jointed legs made it appear vaguely insectile, but it seemed more mammalian and was thinly dusted in short gray and black hair. Its eyes were oval, glossy-black, apparently all pupil, no sclera, no iris, no nothing. Between them depended a prehensile snout easily as long as the legs.
Denny unstuffed his hand from his mouth and saw deep teeth dents on his own knuckles. His human eyes were open way too wide.
"Hey," he said, his voice cracking again.
The anteater-ish nose sniffed toward the gum, then nailed it with the speed and accuracy of a frog's whiplash tongue. It curled under and delivered the gum to a mouth Denny could not see.
"It's grape," he said, still searching for the normal version of his voice. "Most people don't like it because of the gross color, but to me it tastes ... stronger than other gum, so I like it."
The animal made another sound that curled up at the end in the manner of a question.
"You're not supposed to swallow it." It stayed put, not retreating. It almost acted as if it were listening to Denny's voice and could read his desperate desire for it to not run away.
Denny realized he was probably assigning human traits where none were identifiable. Yet. To remain patient, and search them out, would take the kind of skill he used to perceive creature-forms in the starscape. Slowly, deliberately, he deployed another stick of gum, but this time he held it between his fingertips, his mind thinking nightmare thoughts about teeth.
By no definition was this thing cute, but esthetic or not, it had trusted Denny this far, and it liked the gum. And it was favoring its left rear leg, the one Denny could now see had most of the hair -- or whatever it was -- scorched off.
Cats weren't cute, either, when you looked at them really closely.
When the questing nose had examined Denny's hand, figuring out contours and registering warmth before collecting the gum, it felt cool and slightly sticky, like an iguana tongue, and the creature was definitely breathing through it as well.
Denny carefully moved half a grownup pace nearer. "Think you'll let me see that leg?"
The creature reared back from Denny's extended leg, as though fearing a food grab by a predator. It was disinclined to act like an agreeable movie E.T. who could learn English on the spot, didn't smell bad, and could pass for human as some simpleass plot dictated. But the sound of Denny talking appeared to calm it.
"I'll come to you. Just don't run away, okay?" Denny felt like an idiot, and was sure Grace would laugh at his bedside manner. He stowed his flashlight and made sure his open hands were within its field of sight. Finally it ventured a half-step closer, and Denny recognized that it was mimicking the faith and trust that had compelled his own half-step. In this fashion, like a goofy game of slapjack, they at last drew close and Denny could see the hinge of its wounded leg was moist and looked infected.
"Nozzle," said Denny, skillfully distracting it with his voice while he got the leg into his grasp under the light. "You have a nozzle-head. Let's see this." It jerked slightly when Denny manipulated the leg, but did not withdraw. "Okay. You're officially a patient."
He had to peel off his T-shirt to swaddle the animal for the hike home. It curled into a fetal ball with all legs but the injured one hugging its abdomen. Denny stepped carefully across the patch of scorched ground toward the line of cornstalks which delineated the far boundary of his shortcut. Three steps in, his athletic shoe thudded into something massive and dark, which felt like kicking a big bag of rice. He flashed on the ominous noise he'd heard prior to the one made by his new patient, and now that he was trapped at the halfway point of his trek, his treacherous memory leaked the info that other things lurked out here as well -- big things, possibly with big incisors and talons, big-hungered predators with excellent night vision, big in the way all monsters are big, bigger still now that they were loose on Earth.
The big thing at Denny's feet did not move. Its stink was enough to rouse the little nozzled animal in his arms and cue a reflex to escape by any means. Denny had to hold it tightly. If it wrested free, it would certainly snap its injured leg.
"No, no, c'mon, it's okay, it's okay -- I think this one's dead."
When it un-franticked enough to hold one-armed, Denny snapped on the flashlight. The definitely dead thing was cool to the touch, the earth beneath it saturated in a palette of its own blood. It was built like a sloth or an ape, with long grasping arms and a heavy torso. It lacked a head or neck per se, but a broad-featured, grimacing face was installed directly into the upper chest, reminding Denny a bit of steroid-enhanced bodybuilders whose shoulders seemed to sprout from their ears. It was more than twice the size of a human being, and it had been burned badly in the blaze. The beam of light picked out several bullet punctures, shining out like dead black eyes even through the dense, oily fur, which accounted for the blood. Its dying had not been easy, or without pain.
Denny moved on, bearing in mind Grace's admonition to save the ones that could be saved. Halfway through the cornfield, he felt the little creature go slack in his grasp. Fearing it had died on him, he fumbled for the flashlight. It squirmed a bit, reassuringly, and there in the darkness Denny saw for the first time the fabulous workings of its eyes.
Deep within the shiny black oblongs lurked pinpoints of light, vague phosphors that surfaced one at a time, to cluster. When the little guy looked at something, the microdots of lights swarmed from one sector of his eye to another, across and through the ebony depths beneath the curved membrane. Light made the dots recede. If Denny had clicked on the flash, he would have spoiled it.
"Nozzle," he said again, and the dots dimmed. The creature went back to sleep in his arms. That said a lot of things, but Denny had no time to marvel over his bedside manner because just then he saw something new that dried up all the spit in his mouth.
In the corona of his flashlight, jutting up from the cornfield dirt, was a human hand. It was relaxed into a limp-wristed splay and appeared fish-belly white. The body to which it was attached was concealed beneath a grave-like mound of freshly-turned earth. Denny would have tripped over it in the dark and gone sprawling. Scared now, he clicked off the light and took his bearings against the stars.
Home was thisaway. Grace's former house was thataway. And he was standing on the spot where, earlier in the day, he had noticed the congregation of gimme caps in the field; the site where his mom had posited a wounded animal too far gone to save. Now there was a dead guy here. If the sloth monster had killed him, why bother to bury him uneaten? If he had perished in the fire, his buddies would not have just shoveled compost over him in some stranger's corn row; there would have been hoopla and investigators and a wake with fried chicken. Denny remembered the swirl of smoke seen through his telescope. Bang -- a gunshot.
Those guys in the ballcaps, they shot this other guy just this afternoon and left him in the cornfield. Our new neighbors.
Denny had never seen anyone recently dead by mayhem, first-hand, his whole time in California.
But those guys, our neighbors, killed this other guy ...
Even if he burrowed down to brush dirt from the face, he'd never recognize the victim.
... who was also a neighbor.
If Denny told his parents, then he would have to account for his nocturnal wanderings, and worse, the outer space bundle asleep in his arms.
His homeward trip was past the point of no return, so he stepped over the corpse mound and kept walking, never looking back, not once.
And so it went, for nearly a whole week.
Denny gradually figured out that Nozzle liked food that could be masticated for a long time. He rejected most fruit but liked bacon; cooked or uncooked did not seem to matter. Lunchmeat and ice cubes, yes; eggs and lettuce, no. Some breads. Not many sweets apart from his favorite, gum. He also seemed to enjoy candles, though this last discovery had been sort of an accident.
Despite a perplexing lack of evidence in any obvious direction, Denny had assigned Nozzle a default identity as male. The redness of Nozzle's blood bonded them further; it appeared to clot normally -- normally for Earth, that is -- and so made Denny's limited medical ability more a matter of rote than deduction.
He must have asked the creature where it was from a trillion times, rhetorically, almost as a greeting, whenever he could sneak out to the Sanctuary, which was a defrocked chicken coop overgrown with weeds, twenty yards past the back of the barn, where Denny's mom had no interest in planting and his dad had even less interest in mowing. The coop had come with the farm, had never contained an actual chicken that Denny had ever witnessed, and made an excellent stash point once he had fashioned a keep-out screen sized to the entry. The screen was sturdy post wire that dropped onto curved nail heads from the interior of the coop. The entrance was big enough for Denny to wriggle through, but Mom or Dad, no way. Nozzle made little noise apart from the trilling sound he usually made when Denny was talking to him. Predators couldn't breach the security measures; Denny had boarded up other potential trouble spots from within.
"I wish you could tell me one thing," he said. "Where you're from. If you could say two things, then where you're from plus your name, or whatever it is you're called, or that you call yourself." He really wanted to seek out Nozzle's origin point with his telescope -- a hopeless, minor ambition, but persistent in the way only unattainable desires are. "Maybe somebody will come looking for you. Bad if it's guys from some zoo. Good if it's your relatives."
Nozzle ate vienna sausages one at a time as Denny parceled them out from the can.
"Okay, let's see the leg."
The swarm of lights in Nozzle's eyes followed Denny's reach for the injured leg, but, Denny fancied, not with as much apprehension as three days earlier. This, too, had become part of their routine. Hydrogen peroxide did not seem to hurt the little guy, although he found the fizz effect startling ... no moreso than Denny had found the same stuff, the first time it had been used on him. He rinsed and redressed the wound whenever the bandage became saturated.
"Can you bend it? Like this?" Denny demonstrated with his own arm.
The lights drew it all in. Then Nozzle cranked his injured limb as far as he could without pain, which was a good two inches of swing more than the previous day.
"Outstanding." Denny proffered the usual reward of a grape gumball, and dressed the leg fresh.
Nighttime, whenever Denny could stealth out to the Sanctuary, he burned candles, carefully, so as not to start a fire, and so Nozzle wouldn't gobble the candles up. "You're not from here. You've been to more than one planet in your life, and I'll probably never get off this one, except for maybe a ride into orbit on a shuttle or something. But by then, that'll be normal, like riding a really expensive bus. I want to stay in space for a while, and look through a telescope with no atmosphere in the way. You know, if you were in space and the whole Earth burned down, it wouldn't bother you way up there. I sure wish Grace was here. I bet she wishes she was here, too ..."
Nozzle's eyes were dark. He had drifted off to sleep while Denny talked. When Denny noticed, he sat there for another hour, cross-legged until his feet were numb and needly, so as not to disturb the rest of his small alien charge.
During the day, Denny's parents accepted his tale of wandering the fields and seeking out the perimeters of the farm. By night, they had not a clue. Sometimes adults seemed to function according to entirely perverse standards. They all ate dinner at the same table, but Mom and Dad occasionally struck him like cats, reacting bizarrely to things he could not perceive, or obsessing disproportionately over other things like whether or not it was a pleasant day. They had turned into aliens themselves, beings who could discuss the weather for hours. He'd could probably drag Nozzle through the kitchen in a red wagon at high noon and they'd see it, but they'd never notice it. At least, this was the delusion with which Denny satisfied himself until his Dad finally caught him sneaking out, long after bedtime.
Hindsight teaches that casual sorties are the ones most fraught with hazard. The worst automobile accidents occur close to home, when the driver lapses into a bogus sense of security. Your parents only nail you on the one night you didn't really need to sneak out the window, by the time you'd done it often enough to lapse into a lazy underestimation of the vigilance of those in charge. Being a kid could sometimes blow like a typhoon. Childhood was phantasmagoric only in expedient fiction and lying memory.
The press of school, looming poisonously fresh within mere days now, less than a week, easily subjugated Denny's sleep. At night, he watched the stars, and after hours, he discovered more and more about Nozzle. The creature's odd, quill-like "hair" had the capacity to change color and acquire or dissipate heat, apparently dependent upon his mood or how safe he felt. He did not have teeth, but ridged gray-black gums. The sounds he emitted seemed to have more to do with Denny's proximity or ministrations than with outright communication ... so when Denny actually heard the trilling noise cutting across the night air, he knew something was amiss.
By this time it was rote: Shirt, pants, sneakers, out the window, across the backyard, past the barn to the Sanctuary. Denny usually took his flashlight although he rarely clicked it on; he knew the route, and any use of the light before he rounded the barn might be spotted from the house. A big Frankenstein-sized lightbulb in a rusted conical shade hung from a phone pole planted midway between the house and barn. It could be turned on from the screened-in rear deck, what Mom called a sunporch. It was the closest thing to a streetlamp within a mile of their property. Denny did not miss streetlamps so much as he keenly felt their absence, and lack of the sense of order and civilization they implied. Streetlamps, after all, interfered with telescopy.
He passed beneath the dark shade, which swung and creaked in a growing wind from the west. He heard Nozzle's alarm sound again and broke into a dead run.
One of Denny's board-ups had failed, and something big and doggy was trying to breach the chicken coop by excavation. Denny nearly charged it before he reconsidered their relative sizes and cast about for a rock. In the dark it appeared to be a full-blown Doberman with clipped ears. Denny dinged it soundly on the hip with the first stone, forcing it to pull out and swivel notice to him just as he cocked his arm with a second shot. The dog hesitated. Denny snapped on his light -- if the dog was even momentarily dazzled that could be an advantage -- and saw Nozzle holding forth from the rent in the side of the Sanctuary. There did not seem to be any blood on the Dobie's muzzle. Yet.
"Get the hell outta here!" Denny yelled. The dog shied but held ground, and when Denny hurled the next rock it was ready to dodge. Now he'd have to throw the flashlight. The dog really wanted what was holed up in the coop; wanted it bad enough to persist. It retrenched, almost ignoring Denny, intent on its meaty prize. Denny had his arm cocked to throw the flashlight, to hell with it, when he decided to charge the dog and kick its ass, to hell with getting bitten, when it suddenly yelped, high and shrilly. It seemed to levitate straight up, paws completely off the ground, as though electroshocked.
When it thudded down in a loose spill of its own legs, jaw thonking hard on the ground, Denny sensed it was dead even before he reached it.
There was a dot of blood right between the Dobie's eyes to mark its punctured skull. The tip of a curved ebony stinger withdrew into Nozzle's abdomen. Denny saw this in the chancy light, or thought he saw it, since everything had taken on the delirious air of a hallucination, or a fever. The next thing of which he was actually certain was the sound of his Dad's voice, pumped up, indignant, asking what the hell was going on.
A bigger light blinded Denny; more powerful -- their streetlamp. He was knocked aside or whisked up by the scruff. He heard the sounds of the chicken coop slats sundering. He tasted dirt. Many things happened too quickly to track, and by the time he was being roughly hustled back toward the house, all he could remember was the weird, set aspect of his father's gaze, his reddened, almost furious complexion, and saliva speckling his chin almost as if he were tilting toward some kind of madness. He marched like a man with a mission, but his fixed, fright-mask expression was something Denny had never seen before, and this abrupt werewolf shift frankly scared him, for real.
In his Dad's free hand, the shovel; on the edge of the blade, blood.
After being hollered at some more, Denny was exiled back to bed. He did not sleep.
The following morning, several of the ballcap-wearing locals showed up, summoned by phone. They scratched their brows and traded opinions on conversational terms with Denny's parents. Then a garbage bag was hauled out of what was left of the coop and tossed into the back of a pickup truck next to the dead dog, which belonged to the owner of the truck. Denny saw him shake Dad's hand. Then the truck drove off in a cloud of dust and Nozzle was gone.
Denny attempted a stab or two at explanation but it was hopeless. He finally fell back on the simpler story that he'd heard weird noises and ventured outside on that one night. This allowed his parents to dismiss his culpability as a bare minimum of misbehavior, and deactivated the stickier and more complex questions, which could very possibly get him grounded for the rest of his natural life.
The neighbors grew a bit more neighborly, in a desperate, time-delayed, Welcome Wagon trickle, dropping by with food, or lingering to shoot the breeze on the porch. These appeared, for the most part, to be many of the same rustics Denny had observed out in the cornfield, shooting guns. Soon one of them even gifted Dad with a brand-spanking-new gimme cap. Denny never spoke to the visitors, nor looked in their eyes for fear of seeing a murderer.
Denny never solved his father's mysterious rage, though, years afterward, some of its quirks became clearer. The thing in the coop had been an aberration that jeopardized all the down-home 'pone his parents had found so necessary and seductive. His father's rash reaction had been purely emotional, a caveman response that had the hidden benefit of currying favor with the locals. He acted instinctively, the same as if he'd found a snake in the carport. Mom hated snakes to a nearly pathological extreme. None of this rationalizing helped Denny figure out an explanation, but it buffered the truth. Adults could be too weird.
The disapproving parental scrutiny boring into the back of Denny's head did not relent until the first day of school. His Mom had dispatched him to his fate, saying, "It's a new school, new people. It'll be an adventure for you." It was inadequate, but it was all she could think of to offer.
Popular myth had it that when you die, you "leave this world." That was what people said, and that what was had happened, essentially, to Nozzle. He had left his homeworld and been deposited on Earth by accident; now he had left this world.
Denny's first day in the new school was keynoted by an ambush laid for him by just-call-me-Stephanie, the counselor. He had committed no transgression, yet a summons remanded him to the administrative wing, where waited the punitive and unwanted attentions of principals, vice principals, school nurses, and counselors.
"I have some idea of those events that happened out past Harrow Road," she said, referencing a visitation from outer space as obliquely as only unimaginative people can. "I understand how you must feel."
Her simulacrum of sympathy was so duty-bound and hollow that Denny could not muster the anger or disgust that would yield a truly mordant comeback. Mouthing off would only get him in trouble. He followed the usual social protocols: Eyes down, keep quiet, wait for it to be over.
"Look at it this way," she said in a more confidential tone. "At least this all means that we're not alone."
Dennis lasted a single academic year in his adventure-free new school. By the time summer vacation rolled around again, his mother and father had grown in sufficiently different directions to tire of each other's company, and by mid-June Denny found himself bundled into his Mom's car and bound for relatives he had never met, in Kentucky. In much the manner of Grace Pynchon's leavetaking, Denny was permitted only a box or two of his most treasured possessions. He kept the blacksnake skull with the lock of Grace's hair and left most everything else of hers behind.
The comforts his Mom offered were inadequate then, too. Denny stuck with her, and eventually grew up, and admitted to himself that little kids could be notably stubborn when it came to cutting slack for the misbehavior of adults.
He kept the telescope, of course, to watch the stars, but he never saw them swarm.
Sixteen years later, Denny would discover that the reason for Grace's dad packing the car and scooting with minimal baggage had been an impending bankruptcy, which seemed a stupid reason to lose one's best friend. Dennis and Grace made contact after the span of years and agreed to meet for a cocktail. She had no memory of having called him "Den" when younger, and they found they had surprisingly little to talk about. After that one incident, never saw each other again.
Copyright © David J. Schow, 1999. All Rights Reserved. Used by permission and by special arrangement with the author.