by Todd Colby
Steven Spielberg was the one guy everyone was dead set to get a snapshot of with them. And he obliged, done gone and went to Washington for the once in a lifetime photo op. That photo was plastered all over the damn place, cover of Time magazine to boot. Even stuck up on the wall at Martha's, the local watering hole (known for its eggs & brains special) that is just about the heart of Jackson Pines, which is just about the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Well, that, and of course, our local church.
The day them creatures came down from wherever they did come from happened to be my fifteenth anniversary on the force, which included me, Sheriff Hanckley—he'd been Sheriff longer than I been alive—and Deputy Bob. The two of us used to hang out together at Jackson Pines High School. We were known as the "terror twins"—Floyd and Bob, real troublemakers and prank pullers. Kind of funny then that we became the law. Real damn funny.
That day in late August, melting hot one too—I remember as clear as the first time Rebecca and me...well, don'tcha make me spell it out for ya'—I guess it's like when they say everyone who was around when Kennedy had his head blown apart, knows exactly where they was—so it was when space creatures arrived for the first time. I was headed out to the Winthrop Ranch to see old Bill Winthrop about a charity auction we had coming up (his wife baked the best peach muffins in the county, if you asked me) and Bob comes on the police radio spewing some nonsense about space creatures. Naturally, knowing his history of being a prankster, I thought he was putting one over on me. Either that or he'd been dipping into the hootch, but Bob didn't partake of such stuff. Not anymore, anyways. Once I got at the ranch, old Bill grabs me and sticks me in front of the television. His furniture looked like it came from the Salvation Army, but he had a nice new flat screen television sitting in the family room. Sure as shit, on CNN, there's live pictures of the real ugly dark creatures with long string-bean arms, like they part person, part fish, 'cause they had what seemed like gills on scaly faces. Didn't much look like E.T. to me. But they did have them big black freaky eyes.
They said their spacecraft broke, that's why they landed just outside Detroit. No way the military was able to cover it up, in broad daylight as it happened, jus' beside a shopping area, across from a McDonald's and a pawn shop.
Life in Jackson Pines went on as it always did. Even after them creatures met with top science brains of all kinds and shared with them their advanced smarts of the stars and galaxies and all that—how the universe existence is vibrational, whatever that all means—and explained how they traveled by warping space and a bunch of other stuff I, nor probably anyone else in Jackson Pines, not even the smartest kid at the high school, could understand. There were no cases of mass hysteria, no one leaping off buildings, no one saying the end of the world had arrived. The church-going folk still attended church on Sunday mornings, still prayed, still baptized their kids. A few other folks stood outside the White House with signs that read: "Prayer is our only hope." Some folks didn't believe what the space creatures said no matter what. Some others believed. Others didn't care one way or the other. They were too busy trying to make a living during a recession, raising kids, scraping up dog shit off their lawns.
In Jackson Pines, the autumn pumpkin festival was a big party thrown every October. For a town in the Appalachian Mountains with a population of a scant four thousand, two hundred and fifty-three, it was a big deal. The top fiddlers and bluegrass musicians came from all over to play and for us dance and eat real home-cooked food. The barbecue pork on a bun with a side of corn muffins was a particular favorite.
Carson, my younger kin by three years, was there. He was looking mighty glum, like someone jus' stole his best gal. He was real quiet anyway, a serious type who planned on studying to be a priest. Me, I wasn't all that keen on the religious stuff. Of course, I went to church every Sunday, mainly 'cause my lady would give me a right whipping if I didn't and, as the law in town, if I didn't...well, you know, appearances and all that. Carson was taking the whole alien thing hard with some of what they said.
It was time for big brother to step in. I poured a cup of homemade lemonade and put it up to his face.
He brushed me aside. "No, thank you, Floyd."
I tried to talk sense to him. "Standing there looking like a deer that just got pumped full of buckshot ain't gonna do you any good. Take it. it'll make you feel better. I know how much you like Millie's lemonade."
Carson slowly took the red plastic cup in his thin fingers. "Anyone who is among the living has hope that even a live dog is better off than a dead lion." He loved to quote the Bible, that was for sure, ever since he was little. He added, "I am not so sure about that."
"You gonna start with that again?"
"What if it is true," my lil' brother raised his voice, above the sweet sounds of the Conner Mountain Boys, which consisted of Joe Sr. on banjo, Joe Jr. on fiddle and Joe the Third, age 11, strumming a guitar, "and why shouldn't it be? You heard with your own ears what they said. They said their knowledge of the Universe didn't include what we call God, or a divine entity, or the Lord. That our whole of religion made no sense."
"They didn't say there ain't no God," I tried to reason, as I lit up a cigarette. Yeah, I know, shitty habit and me being the law, ain't a good role model thing to do. I am trying to quit.
"Didn't them creatures? They done told everything about creation to the science brains. And, the science brains declared the truth about the universe was finally revealed to man. It was by nature they told, not some God. Case closed, Floyd." His left eye twitched, always a sign of my brother being major upset, like the time he was eleven and I stole his bike and took it down to the lake for the day.
Carson gestured to my cigarette. Here we go again. Ever since he quit, he was always on my ass about my habit. Like having a second wife. Nagging in stereo. But, he caused me damn near fall of my chair—that is, if I was resting on one—when he shamelessly said, "You got one I can bum off ya'?"
I was too stunned to say a thing, so I just handed him a smoke. Lit it too. Not really knowing what I was supposed to say, I blurted out the first thing I could think of. "Who says them creatures know everything?"
"They know enough to come all the way here," Carson calmly said, taking a drag. "That means they're way smarter than us. Good enough for me."
"Little brother, why don't we enjoy the festivities? Worry about that heavier shit for some other time?"
"That's one of your shortcomings, Floyd. You always want to put everything off for some other time."
My brother could toss a zinger out, not real good ones that hurt though. "Well, here's one thing I ain't putting off. I'm going to get myself some of that delicious barbecue pork. I suggest you do the same." I walked away. I could see he was in a unchanging gloomy way. No sense me getting all depressed too.
"Mr. Floyd Platt, you march down there right this minute and do what you said you promised!"
Rebecca was upset because I promised mother that I would help her clean out the garage. I was supposed to haul decades worth of junk down to the dump, and I never seemed to get around to it. Carson was right about me putting things off. I can't deny it. That's who I am. It was Saturday, week after the pumpkin festival, my day off, and I just wanted to lay around in my bathrobe, watch some good ole TV.
"Why can't Carson do it? Hell, he's the one living there."
Rebecca wasn't impressed by my argument. "Because she asked you. And let's face it, you're stronger."
"Can't argue with the truth," I said as I poured myself a hot cup of coffee for the road.
"You're not going out like that, are you?" she alluded to my well-worn, but endlessly comfortable favorite bathrobe.
"No, dear," was all I could muster, still not fully awake. I grabbed a Hostess cupcake off the counter. The cream filling would feel real good going down with my coffee.
"Doctor said you should be eating healthier. That don't look like healthy food to me."
Lucky bastard, that Bob. Single and vowed to stay that way. One of us had good sense.
I knew what to expect. There was a reason no one parked a vehicle inside the two-car garage since The Gipper was in the White House. Rusted toys, bicycles, rotting furniture, spare parts for things long forgotten and obsolete, files of ancient tax returns, receipts, coupons decades expired, and that river of magazines—countless issues of Country Living, Life, Popular Mechanics—all housed in tall, filthy, spider-web encrusted cardboard moving boxes, hardly enough room for the two of us to even breathe in there. Why do folks let this shit accumulate, I always wondered. Sooner or later, it all goes to the dump.
"Maybe I should hold on to this," Mother said, placing a seventy-three year old wrinkled hand on a particularly nasty baby stroller.
"Are you trying to tell me something. Mother?"
"Don't get smart," she grinned. "Perhaps one of our neighbors could use it. There are a lot of young families in the neighborhood, you know."
"For what? So they can give their kid some kind of infection?" I didn't think mother was a hoarder, but sometimes I wondered.
"Or, when one of my sons gets around to making me a grandma," she added.
"Key word—sons. Why isn't your other one here helping out?"
"You're stronger, Floyd," she pointed out. "Been that way since the two of you were wee high." She opened a box to pull from it yellowed magazines.
"Speaking of which," I said as I casually tossed the offensive stroller out of the garage, "where is Mr. Happy?"
"He said he needed to take a stroll to collect his thoughts," she sighed. "Then he was going to see if Doc White was in. Carson has been having difficulty falling asleep. Thought maybe the doc could give him something to help." She placed a stack of Country Life magazines on the side.
"What about you, mother? You called them creatures 'demons in disguise'."
"At first, I thought they were. But, I have to admit, those Sizolagians have done a bit of good." Mrs. Hall grabbed another large stack of magazines, to put them aside. "They showed doctors how to cure disease. Farmers how to grow better crops. All them poorer peoples with the flies buzzing 'round them how to clean their water. Maybe they ain't so bad after all."
"What about what they say about religion?" I pressed.
"I don't think they're right 'bout everything. Poor things don't know 'bout the Good Book. After all, they weren't created in the Lord's image, like we were."
"I'm worried about Carson. Last week, he even bummed a cigarette off me."
"He'll be fine," mother smiled re-assuredly in the way only a mother can, placing aside a stack of faded Field & Streams. "If you are worried, you can talk with Pastor Williams."
That's like saying you ain't scared of flying, but you not getting on an airplane. She was worried high noon. Call it a son's gut feeling. More pressing matter, I eyed the vile magazines, "You can't be serious."
She simply smiled, patted the Country Life's like they were a beloved family pet. "They have really good recipes." Never mind that she not once used them to whip up anything.
I glanced at the other pile. "Have long have you been hiding your secret love of fishing?" I asked.
"These were your father's and you know how much he loved his Field & Stream."
"Dad's been gone five years," I pointed out.
"I couldn't bear to part with them." It was an argument I wouldn't win.
Rebecca jabbed her elbow sharp in my side—damn, that hurt. Woman has no mercy. Staying awake during Sunday service was a chore. The singing, readings, prayers and especially—especially!—the sermons. I ain't saying their no good, but they sure can cure one of insomnia, though they are spoken with much enthusiasm for the subject, like a coach giving a pep talk. Pastor Williams had been there longer than I'd been alive. Everyone in Jackson Pines knew and respected him. Fact is, he wrote the recommendation letter for Carson to attend the seminary school he was going to start in just a few weeks. If Jackson Pines didn't have a mayor already, Pastor Williams would have easily been elected.
After more wifely kidney jabs, services over and done with, I paid him a visit. His door was wide open.
"Pastor Williams, you got a few minutes?"
He looked up from where he was placing books back on a shelf. "For you, Floyd, always." He smiled. "I take it you're here to discuss the upcoming Policeman's Charity Softball game."
"No, that's not the reason. But,we sure do appreciate all you've done to help in organizing it."
"Always a worthy cause. Is the Foley boy pitching again?" The wise man sat down behind his impressive desk.
"I hope so. He's got the best arm in the county."
"Sure does. It just may keep him out of the damn coal mines. Good on him if it does. What then can I do you for, Floyd?"
"It's Carson. If you haven't noticed, he's been real down in the dumps lately," I began. "Even having second thoughts about seminary school."
Pastor Williams leaned back, the glare of the overhead florescent lights jovially bouncing off his expansive bald pate. He looked me square in the eye; I believed the words he would speak would be ones of wisdom that only his years of accumulated knowledge could produce. Instead, he blurted out, "Bullshit."
I wasn't sure if I heard him correctly. "Excuse me?"
"Bullshit!" I thought maybe I had entered the Twilight Zone. What exactly was he referring to? The Charity Softball Game? Carson's depression? The price of tea in China, for all I knew? But before I could ask him, he continued. "This," he held up a Bible. "This," he swept his arms towards the church walls. "All of it. Fairy tales. Telling stories of dead bodies rising from graves, scaring folks into thinking their going to hell if they jerk-off, talking about some invisible guy in the sky who magically said, 'Let there be light, let there be a universe, let there be man,' and it all just—poof—happened like that," he snapped his fingers. "Give me a fucking break."
"You don't believe?" I said, fairly taken aback at what he said. I mean, I wasn't really offended, but he was a man of the cloth, after all.
"See this?" He held up a black and white photo of a smiling young man I did not recognize. "1962. Graduated from Virginia Theological Seminary. Being idealistic, I thought I'd get out there, spread the word, make the world a better place. For many years, I thought that was what I was accomplishing. Then, as the years went by, I realized just how hypocritical most of the people I was preaching to really were. How many of them were having affairs on their spouses, cheating on their taxes, partaking of certain substances, lying through their teeth. But, every Sunday, their asses would be planted in church, heads nodding in agreement at everything I said, every passage of the Bible that I quoted."
I removed a mostly empty pack of smokes and matches from my jacket pocket. A stillness enveloped the room. "Sorry Father, force of habit. I am trying to quit."
"The closer to sharing a person comes, the closer to God he gets."
"Yes, of course, Father," I uttered and handed him a smoke. Jeez, even my priest was bumming off me.
"That line works like a charm every time," he expressed fleeting amusement. From his desk draw, he pulled a lighter and tossed it over. "This works better." We both lit up. "Mankind has a hell of an ego, if you ask me. We're a Johnny-come-lately species on this planet, but we think we're the end-all, be-all. The dinosaurs ruled the Earth long before us—maybe they were the ones made in God's image? Those aliens said they've been coming here for two hundred of our years. Watching us, studying us, collecting data. That's all we really are—ants in an ant farm, bacteria under a microscope."
"Why not do something else?"
"What the hell else would I do?" the pastor challenged me, taking a long drag on his smoke. "I'm seventy-three. It's not like anyone is jumping to hire old geezers. Seventy-fuckin'-three. I'm ancient."
"But you're still here," I gently pointed out.
"It's what I do. A shoemaker makes shoes. A baker bakes. A bird shits on cars. I blow hot air on Sunday mornings, shuffle paperwork during the week, listen to people confess when their guilty conscience overtakes them, thinking that forgives them for screwing their fifteen year-old cousin."
"Did you tell Carson any of this?"
For the first time that day, the Pastor cracked a smile, wee as it was. "Heavens no. I explained to him that faith is what resides inside of us, not what is imposed on us from outside forces. Afterlife or no afterlife, God or no God, we should try and serve our fellow man, leave the world a better place than how we found it. Be good caring citizens."
I had to chuckle, "In other words, you laid it on real thick."
"As thick as the milk shakes at Martha's."
I didn't see anyplace to put my smoke remains. My ashes, like his, decorated the floor. "Ashtray?" I asked. He took my unfinished smoke and snubbed it out on his desk. Maybe I really was losing the taste for those things. "He hasn't been himself. He just lays about the house, says there's no point in going to seminary class, no point in attending church, no point in going on living if there's no God. He's got mother worried sick. I wish I could do something to help."
"You have spoken with him?"
"Sure as Jesse Hollander's a moonshiner. Might as well be talking to my hand. If only there was some way to, to..."
"Make him believe again," the Pastor read my mind.
"Yeah, that's it."
Following one last extensive drag on his smoke, the tired pastor snuffed it on out his desk. He fell into the well-cushioned chair, appearing to be deep in thought. Great, I figured, he'll come up with something. Next I heard was the sound of buzz saws. The bastard wiped out on me. I wasn't sure what to do. If I just slid out of there, and he woke, that could be more embarrassing to him than if I stayed, if he remembered me being there, that is. I suddenly had a "coughing fit". Did the trick. He picked up right where he left off. "Will Carson be available this evening?"
"I'll make sure of it, Father."
"Good. I'll meet you at the house tonight at six."
I turned to leave. "And Floyd, about the..." he nodded to the smoke butts, "let's keep that between us."
"Sure thing, padre," I replied. I stood there feeling like I did when me and Bob snuck in a smoke in the high school crapper.
I pulled up to mother's house at ten to six. I'm one of those guys who always like to be early. Especially in law enforcement, that's a good trait to have, being that I often go talk at schools, civic meetings and other shit that makes up my day. I let myself in with my key, as I always did. Until about twelve years ago, no one would even bother to lock their doors. Then there was a rash of break-ins in the business district. We caught the guys—out-of-towners, as I figured—but since then, citizens got in the habit of locking doors.
"Mother!," I called out. No answer. She usually hit Cracker Barrel with her friend for Sunday dinner, a tradition since dad died.
"Carson?" No answer on that either. He never went out to dinner with mother and her friend. With my luck, that night would be the first time. But, it would be a good sign if it was so. I made my way to the back of the house, where his bedroom was. The door was closed. I knocked. "Carson, you in there?" Dead silence. "Damn it!", I muttered. I carefully pushed open the door to see my brother, laying in bed. "Carson, you deaf?"
He stared at the ceiling, still as a lawn statue. "Please go, Floyd, now's not a good time."
I was pissed. "Carson, get up. Pastor Williams is coming over to see you. He needs to talk with you."
"Please go, Floyd."
"Look here, Carson, today I met with Pastor..." The doorbell rang. He was early. "Don't go anywhere." I went and opened the door. Standing there was the Pastor with a boy who couldn't have been older than nine, red haired, freckle-faced, a Norman Rockwell painting come to life. "Please, come in, Father, and..."
"This is Larry, Barney Wilson's kin from over in Bear Creek. I thought he could help Carson's situation," Pastor Williams said. "Larry, this is Mr. Platt. He's a police officer."
The youth's pupils became flashing neon signs to rival those of any casino on the strip in Vegas. "No way! A real cop?" At least some kids still felt that way.
"I don't think he's going to come to us, so we better go to him." I cleared the path to Carson's cocoon. "Carson, we have guests," I announced to unconcerned ears. Son-of-a-bitch. He used to have good manners. "Carson," I felt my blood pressure rising, "get the wax out of your brain."
Pastor stepped forward. "Please, allow me," he said in his best man-of-God voice. "Carson, this is Larry."
"Hi ya', Mr. Carson," Larry chirped.
"Larry," Pastor Williams continued, "had an accident last year something bad. He was climbing a tree branch and fell. Nearly died. I suppose he could tell you about it more than I can."
"That's the truth, Mr. Carson, right like Mr. Williams tells it," the boy from central casting bellowed. "My bestest friend, Karl, dared me to climb the biggest tree in the yard. It was bigger than the biggest animal I ever seen. I made it up about halfway when I lost my grip, and took a spill. Banged my head real bad on a rock. Doctors had to put a steel plate in—for real." The boy leaned his head in close to his indifferent listener. "Go on, Mister Carson, you can feel it for yourself." He pointed to a spot in back of his skull.
"Carson, Larry was kind enough to visit with us," I said. "It'd be poor manners to not do as he asks." In aggravation, I grabbed my brother's hand and put it up to the head metal. We watched him move his fingers a bit over it. It was a good sign, I thought.
"Larry has something even more important to tell you, Carson," Pastor Williams interjected.
"I sure do, Mr. Carson," Larry said, in the same excited tone. "When I was got to the hospital, I saw doctors and nurses all around me, but it was weird, like I was floating on top of them all. Then I saw this really bright light, but it didn't hurt my eyes one bit."
Upon hearing this, Carson's eyes cracked open quarter moon. The boy had gotten his attention.
Larry continued, "I moved through a really long tunnel. Didn't know where I was. But I wasn't scared or anything. When I came out that tunnel, right in front of me was Jesus. He was standing there with open arms to give me a hug. He looked jus' like he did in church."
Hearing that, my brother's eyelids opened full on. I had a feeling where this was going.
Carson asked, rather weakly, I thought, "Jesus. Really? You hallucinating, boy?"
"No sir, Mr. Carson. It was really him. I know it."
"How can you be sure?" Carson quizzed.
"'Cause he told me it wasn't my time. I had to go back. I didn't want to, but Jesus said he'd always be watching out for me. And when I woken up in the hospital, the doctors told me I been dead and it was nothing short of a miracle that I came back to life."
"My Lord," Carson whispered. He tried to sit up, but couldn't.
"See that!," I exclaimed. "Never mind what them ugly creatures told. They ain't so smart after all, are they? There really is Jesus, Heaven, God, all that good stuff." Man, was Pastor Williams one crafty SOB.
Pastor spoke up, "Change your mind about Seminary school?"
"Yes sir," Carson said, talking so softly we could barely hear him. "I done something real bad." With his right hand, he gently lifted up a corner of the pillow to reveal a bottle of prescription pills. I'd seen enough of them in my line of profession. I grabbed it and shook it. Empty. Empt-fuckin'-y! I grabbed my phone...no, hell, on second thought, I had the squad car right out front, it'd be quicker just to drive him to Jackson Pines Medical Center. They always had a doctor on duty. I lifted him up.
"Can I be of help," Pastor Williams asked.
"I got him," I said as I hurried out the room. No time for proper goodbyes.
The following day, Pastor filled me in on what he'd done. Larry's story was as fake as a three-dollar bill. Oh, the boy's fall was real, but Pastor had gotten him to add on the Jesus story by promising him a three-scoop ice cream float.
As for my little brother, the doctor said that if he'd come in to the hospital five minutes later...well, let's just say, Carson would have found out for sure what, if anything, is on the other side. Me, I'm just plum happy to see mother stop worrying.