3,940 words, 20 minutes @ 200 wpm. For late teens and above.
By Jerry A. Boggs – April 2020
There’s a first time for everything. Even this.
Twenty-year-old, spindly Jesse Mitchell, wearing a frayed, faded navy-blue sweat jacket, stood scanning Woodville Park. He and his nineteen-year-old plump girlfriend of eight months, Leah Jordan, had walked to the park from her mother’s house three-quarters of a mile away.
The leaf-littered gazebo and pavilion caught Jesse’s eye. The three picnic tables there had been swept clean of their paper cups, plates, napkins, plastic silverware, and unfinished carry-outs. The breeze had scattered them over the concrete and grass. Squirrels and black birds battled over scraps of hamburger and buns. Squirrels lunged at birds. The birds flapped away and circled back, as determined to stay as the squirrels were to give chase and hold ground.
“The hell? Park’s gone to crap in a week? Never seen so much trash here. And so many birds and squirrels. Where the shit is everybody this late in the morning?”
He glanced at Leah. She had sat on one of the park’s handful of olive-green, weather-splintered benches, the phone in her hand framed by her thumb and fingertips.
Jesse’s toes, inside aged, maroon Reeboks, curled up in protest of withdrawal’s racking of his body. It was either be drug-free at his next appointment or go back to jail — and lose a shot at the janitor job he’d applied for a week earlier.
Despite the chilling breeze, sweat annoyed his forehead. His shaky arms lowered him to the bench beside Leah. He wobbled, bumping her.
“I mean, look at that, Dumpling. No dog-walkers, strollers — zippo. First time I’ve seen it like this. An omen maybe?”
“First time for everything. Stop with the omen crap, or I’m gonna set you on fire.” Leah’s foot tapped the ground as she stared at her phone, her red lips pursed. “It’s a cold morning. Did you happen to notice the sky? Hint: it’s directly above you. Gray and depressing, kinda like your underwear. Might rain any minute. Everybody knows — ‘cept you, I guess — fall weather in this state ain’t something you trust.”
A vein in her temple throbbed. She crossed her legs, uncrossed them. Her hand slapped the bench near her knee. “Dammit. Can’t make a call. Was okay here last week.”
“First time for everything.” He withdrew his last weed, his shaking fingers toying with it. He sniffed hard, gave his arm a brisk rub, and flicked the weed at the rust-red, over-flowing trash barrel four feet away. The barrel’s stench of rotted meat made his head recoil when the breeze shifted. The weed landed in the neglected, ochre-green grass far enough off its mark to lead one to believe he’d aimed at something else — or wasn’t wholly committed to getting rid of it.
Leah snorted and jammed her phone into the pocket of the new sage utility jacket she’d stolen from her mother. Her blue eyes raked around. “So, what’s it gonna be, Jess? Rip somebody off, or just dog ’em?”
Jesse hiked his bony, birdlike shoulders. “Make’s no diff, I guess. But we sure as shit need some cash.”
Her chin bobbed toward the nearby road, over which bronze, yellow, and red palmate leaves from the park’s sugar maples cart-wheeled, paused, and scuttled in the breeze like freakish crabs. The road snaked into Woodville’s small business district about three-hundred yards away and visible from where Leah and Jesse sat. “How ’bout we just follow that creep over there?”
A bearded, 40-ish man leaned against the glass-and-beige-brick front of Lou’s Hardware on the other side of the road. He faced their way. Could he hear them talking? They’d not been quiet, and the breeze carried their voices in his direction.
A purple sailor beanie covered the man’s head to his eyebrows and the upper half of his ears. A soiled, brown blanket, with several golf-ball-to-baseball-sized holes, hung around his shoulders. Underneath it, the man wore jeans and a gray and red plaid shirt.
Jesse cocked his head. “Where the hell did he come from? Out of nowhere.” He shivered and flipped the hood of his jacket over his head.
“Out of Lou’s, prob’ly. Makes sense? Ta-dah.”
“Is Lou’s open? Don’t see no lights on.” As he sat with his forearms resting on his thighs, his thumbs picked at each other and his feet rocked. “I vote No. Gives me the goddamn creeps.” He flinched toward the weed he’d sent flying, tipped back. “My next welfare check says he’s a homeless. Poor little Woodville’s got its share of them.”
She snickered. “Maybe we can separate him from his beautiful blankie. Homeless? Nah, gonna go with undercover parole officer, maybe keeping track of us and making sure we know it.”
He gave her a stare.
Leah turned her head away. “Getting a whiff of a big hairy ‘What the shit?’ coming.”
“What? So okay, please explain how we can follow somebody following us. Wouldn’t we be like, y’know, a couple of rabbits dogging a fox that’s dogging us? A fox with a gun? Make sense? Ta-dah. Next time you have a thought, let it go.”
Her shrug was dismissive. “Let’s give it 15 minutes. If he walks away, we got somebody maybe interesting to tailgate. If he turns out to be a cop, hey, we might see an arrest go down.”
“Yuh huh. Ours–for stalking a cop.” He snuffled. “All we’ll see is him pissing on the sidewalk’s more like it. You hate cops. Why would you want to tail one?”
“Be fun to turn the tables on the bastards.”
A shakiness rippled through him, inflaming his nerves. Both of his hands clenched the rounded edge of the bench until his fingers hurt. “Seriously? Cop or a homeless, don’t give a crap. Don’t want that shit-hole. By the way, it is my choose. You picked the last one.”
“Fine,” she said, flipping a hand. “Whatev.”
He pushed himself to his feet again, teetered, caught his balance. “Dammit.” He frowned up at the bruised, dark underbelly of the three-day-long overcast. Could the sky’s sullenness be blamed for some of his? His toes curling again, he turned at the waist to look at her. “I say we go with that weird dude.”
He pointed at someone else who seemed to have appeared from nowhere, half a block closer to town. The man was walking away from them, nearing the building of Bryant & Logan Law Offices, LLP, a three-storey, lurid-amber structure.
Leah rose and gave Jesse a hard glare. “When the shit are you gonna get through it, Jess?” Her eyes bounced off him to the person up the street. “That guy? The personification of boredom–”
“Into fifty-dollar words all of a sud–?”
“–Plain tan suit. Briefcase. A crew-cut, for goddamn’s sake. Straight outta the fifties.”
Jesse’s brows slid up. “Check out that walk. Must be made of wood?”
“Leg braces. Betcha.”
“A bonafide friggin’ midget, too.”
The diminutive man came to a jerky halt in front of the law office serving all of Jefferson County. He glanced to the right and left. For a moment, he appeared to be taking in Mr. Creepy-Looking. After struggling to wrench the door open, he stumbled inside, his over-sized briefcase thumping against the glass.
Leah whipped a skein of leather-black hair behind an ear. “Great, he’s a goddamn lawyer–a clumsy, midget cripple lawyer. Yeah, oughta be exciting. Worser’n watching you watch my nail polish dry. So what do we do–sit and wait three hours before he comes back outside?”
“Cut the fuss-bucketery.” Jesse took her by the wrist and pulled her off the bench. “I’m exhausted but c’mon, this guy looks interesting. Let’s see how long we can keep tabs on him, see if we can get his story. I’d like to find out who he is.”
“His name and all?” she said between breaths as they trotted across the park directly toward the law office. They avoided passing close by Creepy-Looking. “Who cares? Just another stupid old lawyer. I’m real happy you vetoed Mr. Maybe Undercover Cop, who’s gotta be ten times more interesting.”
Just feet from the entrance, they down-shifted to walking speed. Jesse, winded, his stomach queasy, shot a glance at the homeless-maybe-cop guy. That passive face still seemed to be taking in the park bench where he and Leah had sat. Had booger-sugar turned him into a zombie?
Jesse tossed his hood back and swung the door open in time to spot the midget-sized man disappearing into the stairwell.
They stood in the foyer next to a five-foot-tall, dust-coated, reddish plant in a black pot that reminded Jesse of a witch’s brewing kettle. Below a wall directory was a receptionist’s desk with an in-tray full of papers, a photo of two beaming toddlers, a pen holder, a Chinese monkey plant in a small white, octagonal vase, and a computer monitor and keyboard. The desk had no one behind it.
The stinging in Jesse’s nerve endings had mostly receded. Tension relaxed its squeeze.
“Give him a few. The stairs gotta be a bitch. Too bad for him this ancient building doesn’t have an elevator.”
“Nice of you to be so concerned. So what do we say if somebody asks what we want?”
Jesse’s eyes stayed on her while he mulled it over. “How ’bout: ‘Oh, we thought we saw somebody we recognized come in here, but we don’t know where he went, so….’ and we leave.”
Her hand rocked. “Meh. Doesn’t exactly get my engine running. Being generous.”
He scowled. “Feel free to submit your better idea so I can slam it.” He crossed the floor and put an ear to the stairwell door. “Still hear him clacking. Very faint, though.”
“Wait,” she said low, “let me try mom again. She don’t trust me ever since we got arrested for assault. Don’t want her to call the cops if she’s noticed her jacket’s missing and she — ha — thinks I took it. I’ll tell her I just borrowed it–”
“And naturally you’ll keep forgetting to return it.”
She extracted her phone, pressed and tapped. “Fully charged…but crap — now it doesn’t work at all. No internet service.”
“Gotta keep them payments up, Dumpling.”
She glared at him, her jaw shifting. “That was the most caring thing you’ve ever said to me. I can definitely see us getting married some day.”
“To each other?”
Scoffing, she smacked his shoulder. Her phone went back to her pocket. “To hell with the old bitch, anyway.”
“Time,” Jesse said, pushing on the door.
Leah cuffed the crook of his elbow and tilted him back. “Hold it. Look at me.” She scanned his face. “Seriously, Jess, do you think we’ll get married some day? To each other, goddamnit. Serious question.”
His forehead furrowed as he tried and failed to stifle a laugh. “Seems an odd time to bring that up.”
“In school I was voted Most Likely To Be Odd. Get over it, Jess.”
Sniffing, he brushed a knuckle across the bottom of his nose, unfurled the finger. “Yeah, well, here’s the thing.” He studied her for a full five seconds, all the while frowning. She wet her lips and studied him right back. His hand went to her rounded shoulder and squeezed until she grimaced. “I say the following in all seriousness, so pay attention.” He looked off. “How about we do it a month from now?”
“Oh!” She gave his arm a hard hug, gazing up at him. “After today, let’s turn over a new leaf and start walking the straight line. Get jobs and all.”
“It starts with you returning your mom’s jacket.” He lifted her chin and kissed her on the bridge of the nose. A sheepish grin exploded across her face.
The door yielded to his nudge. He leaned into the opening, peering up the stairwell. In a soft voice, he said, “Don’t see– Hold on, the door to the basement just closed. C’mon.”
Leah’s hand was in his tight grip as they eased to the bottom of the stairs. He opened the basement door a crack. The diminutive man lurched into a room half-way down the hallway.
“Well, I’ll be a freakin’ monkey’s butt on a Hawaiian vacation,” Jesse said, both hands easing the door shut. “He went into the janitor’s room.”
Leah chuckled through “What? He’s a janitor?” She bopped her forehead. “Wow, this really is getting excit–.”
“What if this — this situation’s an omen? I think it means I’ll get that janitor job.”
Her head jerked back. “Wow, one of your goddamn omens I can live with. Sure hope so. We could finally launch the hell away from our ass-hole parents, get a place of our own.” She paused, looking thoughtful for a second. The back of her hand slapped his arm. “Hey, don’t you think you and me’re about to have our luck change?”
His palm returned to her shoulder, triggering an anticipatory blench in her. “Leah, I truly do feel it.” His head waggled toward the door. “Okay, what if every day the poor slob gets all spiffed up and hauls a briefcase around to impress the wife? Maybe he lost his high-flying job and is too ashamed to tell her. Maybe he thinks—knows—she’d leave him.”
“Can’t even imagine him being married. I sure as shit wouldn’t marry that ugly little cripple.”
He scratched at his five-day chin stubble. “Why don’t we shake him down, blackmail him for maybe a couple of C’s. Easiest mark in the history of marks.”
“Better hope like hell we don’t get caught again, especially on probation. I hate them bastard cops.”
“Yeah, well, they hate us right back. We shouldn’t’ve beat that old guy to a pulp last year.”
“He had it coming and you know it, Jess.” Her eyes hardened. “He should’ve just handed over his shit–”
He shushed her.
“What’s wrong with you, Jess?”
“Nothing.” A pause. “Okay, something. Just occurred to me. Notice how spooky goddamned quiet this building is?”
“Lawyers ain’t no ‘specially noisy bunch. Could all be behind closed doors.”
“No receptionist at the desk upstairs, either. Got a crawly feel–”
She sighed. “They’re prob’ly in one of those all-personnel-conference things on the top floor, yackety-yacking on and on about how they’re going to screw somebody over. Christ, sometimes your imagination kicks into hyper-drive when you’re off-ramping. Get a grip. Would a kick in the shins help?”
“Sucks how you got an answer for everything.”
“‘Cause maybe I’m smarter’n you? It’s so much fun being right.” Her amusement was overdone.
“Right right right. ‘Cept we don’t know if you’re right, right?” He let out a breath, breathed in. “Okay. I’m good. Nerves a bit quieter.” He glanced at the door. “We’d better do this while he’s still in there. Be easier to control the situation. I’ll shove the door open and we’ll rush him before he even blinks. I’ll pin him on the floor. You dig out his wallet and DL. Get his address. Snatch any money he has. All set?”
Her thumb went vertical. “Can’t wait to leave some blood and teeth on the floor.”
He gave her a look. “Y’know, I fully admit I’m mean as a rattle snake. You? You’re twice as mean as two rattle snakes. Who the hell rips off their own mama?”
“That’s all in the past after today. Gonna return this.” She patted her jacket. “And my act gets cleaned up starting tomorrow. I’m gonna make you a damn good wife, Jesse Mitchell. A respectable wife. That’s my pledge to you. I never felt so good about my future.”
His smile blossomed in stages. “Okay, Dumpling, let’s go grab some bucks for that engagement ring. Tomorrow’s a bright, shiny new start for Jesse and Leah. R & L 2.0. But we gotta hurry in case ‘maybe-cop’ comes looking for him. To me, mini-man didn’t seem real comfortable with him close by. Makes me think they had a run-in once upon a time.”
“The Great Gut Spirit tells me mini-man ain’t comfortable around nobody.”
He led the way out. They soft-footed it along the hall, the floor’s dusty dullness not failing to catch Jesse’s attention.
“His next job?” he whispered, his finger pecking downward.
They paused at the janitor-room’s beige wooden door, festooned with tiny scrapes and nicks. Nothing could be seen through the dark-opaque window. Nor could anything be heard through the door’s vent at the bottom. A line of light glowed under the door. Jesse brought an index finger to his lips as he gripped the cold doorknob. He twisted and shoved. They surged in.
Jesse halted, Leah colliding into him. A strange, pungent odor seared his nostrils and curdled his insides. It reminded him of moth balls one second, putrid meat the next.
“The shit?” he said, regaining his balance. “Where’s mini-man?” On the opposite side of the square room was another door. “Bathroom?”
“Saw another exit sign at the end of the hall. Could’ve gone back upstairs while we were gabbing.” Leah glanced around. “There.” On the floor near the right wall lay the man’s tan suit-coat and trousers. A giggle escaped her lips. “Little guy couldn’t reach the hangers.”
The clothes lay between two buckets from which several mop handles protruded at various angles.
“Hm. The coat looks more lumpy than it ought to.” She bent forward at the waist, focusing. “Something…sticking out from under it.”
“Probably another janitor’s uniform.” Jesse, half-listening, stayed laser-focused on the inner door. He expected it to open any second, the man likely having heard the noise. “Crap,” he said under his breath, “sounds like a noisy-ass mouse in there.”
Leah strode to the buckets. Her foot nudged one aside. She stooped and with thumb and middle finger lifted the coat as if it were a leper’s shroud. “Hate to even touch–” She jumped up, dropping the coat. As she reeled backward, her hand flew to her mouth. “What is that?”
Jesse pivoted and gasped. “Oh shit oh shit oh shit. We gotta get out of here!”
Leah hugged her curled shoulders. “What is it?” She didn’t say the words as much as they burst from her throat.
“Can’t you see? His goddamn skin and head. Deflated like a friggin’ balloon.”
“How could that be? What is he? Did he just disappear—unless he’s in–?”
“He’s an alien,” a man’s deep, strong voice growled behind them.
Jesse and Leah ripped around and stiffened. Jesse yelped.
In the doorway stood the chestnut-bearded, “creepy-looking” guy, minus the blanket. He was taller and more muscular than he’d appeared in front of Lou’s Hardware. One hand flashed a badge, the other leveled a police revolver at them. His gray eyes took them in, flitting from one to the next, perhaps gauging them. Was he pleased he’d caught them in a suspect situation and would haul them to jail?
“He’s not from this world.”
Without looking away from them, the cop closed the door behind him. He stood with his gun raised and ready. “Can’t let it get out.”
Leah let out a huge breath as though she hadn’t exhaled for minutes–and hadn’t heard what the cop had said. Strands of hair clung to her forehead. The back of her thumb bulldozed tears away, smearing her mascara. “Oh thank God. You are an undercover cop.”
Jesse knew he hadn’t heard right. “From another–?”
“First time for everything.” A faint smile that didn’t show in the cop’s eyes played at the corners of his mouth.
The door to the inner room clicked. Jesse and Leah whirled again. When the door opened, Leah screamed, her face contorted. They stumbled backward toward the safety promised by the seeming self-assuredness of the cop, the “creep” they’d hated until now.
An arctic-blue creature emerged. It rocked side to side toward them like someone struggling through viscous, ankle-deep mud.
The glassy sheen of its “skin” reflected at least fifty percent of the light–practically a walking mirror. Was it an organic being–or a robot? Or a combination? It wore a single piece of form-fitting, cobweb-colored clothing that bore what appeared to be multiple tiny levers and switches along the full sleeves.
It stood no taller than a five-year-old, its small head hairless, its dime-sized eyes coal-black and browless. It had no discernible nose and ears. A two-inch slit above its chin must have been a mouth.
In the dark room behind it, banks of tiny, multi-colored lights pulsated. Was something on pause and waiting?
The being’s child-like, six-fingered hands caressed a pewter sphere half the size of a basketball. The fingers pressed and tapped. The alien played his machine like a maestro.
Not daring to look away from the alien for even a second, Leah grabbed for Jesse’s hand behind her, missing it.
Jesse, face mottled and neck-veins throbbing, jumped sideways toward the cop. He flapped his hands so hard it hurt. “Shoot that sonofabitch! Shoot it!”
The cop raised his gun hand, extended it, and switched off the safety. He looked at Jesse and winked. “Watch this.”
Jesse skipped back to Leah’s side. He jabbed a finger at the alien, his lips curled. “Yeah! Now you gonna die, you skinny little squeaking rat-bastard.”
The gun’s booming crack in the plaster-wall room stabbed nails into Jesse’s ears.
At such close range, the blow to the head pitched Leah forward onto the floor like a bag of potatoes. Her blood, brain matter, and bone bits pelted the wall. She lay crumpled and still, less than a yard from the alien’s feet.
Jesse froze. Harsh rasps exploded from his throat, nausea erupting in his stomach. He clamped his eyes shut, wobbled a few steps, and made an erratic run for the door.
The big cop blocked his path and shoved him against the wall.
Jesse slid to the floor, crying and choking on his own spittle. His heels dug at the floor, as his hand dug into an empty pocket for his booger sugar.
The alien poised the sphere above Leah’s body. Slender fingers spidered around the metal surface. A low sound, similar to the soft strumming of a bass guitar, flooded the room. For Jesse, the sound’s familiarity only worsened the horror occurring in front of him.
The corpse of Jesse’s never-to-be wife shimmered, along with her blood and the scattered pieces of her skull and hair that clung to the wall. It all rippled like the ending of a nightmare. A moment later, everything that was Leah, including her jeans and her mother’s utility jacket, faded into nothingness. Not the tiniest trace of her remained. It was as though she never existed, except in Jesse’s mind.
The alien’s thin, lip-less mouth trembled. “Good…patrol work… Earther.” The voice shrieked low and tortured, in the way a shrew might speak, the bizarre accent rendering the words barely comprehensible. “This janitor room…has been a good position. Thank you.”
A pause. “It has begun…after a journey of more than…five-thousand of your years. This world’s communications, electronics, radar–all off…two Earth days ago. Our horde is concealed behind…the clouds covering your planet. Do not worry. There…will be a…place for you.”
The cop’s gun arm elevated again as he turned to Jesse. “So I’m a shit-hole creep, eh?”
Through the watery veil over Jesse’s burning eyes, the gun shifted, blurry and shadowy–but it was unmistakable where it pointed.
“This,” the cop said, his voice steady and clear, “is for the old guy you and your sweet girlfriend beat half to death last year.” He tore off his beanie. “He’s my dad.”
Jesse thrust his hands up as if somehow they might save his life.
“No!” His heart thundered in his chest. It exploded with the next bullet.