III - The Invader
THINGS SETTLED DOWN, aS THINGS WILL.
On the first Saturday afternoon in april, with the trees budding and flowers pushing up from the warming earth, I sat between Ben Sears and Johnny Wilson surrounded by the screaming hordes as Tarzan-Gordon Scott, the best Tarzan there ever was-plunged his knife into a crocodile's belly and blood spurted in scarlet Eastman color.
"Did you see thati Did you see thati" Ben kept saying, elbowing me in the ribs. Of course I saw it. I had eyes, didn't Ii My ribs weren't going to last until the Three Stooges short between the double features, that was for certain.
The Lyric was the only movie theater in Zephyr. It had been built in 1945, after the Second World War, when Zephyr's sons marched or limped back home and they wanted entertainment to chase away the nightmares of swastika and rising sun. Some fine town father dug into his pockets and bought a construction man from Birmingham who drew a blueprint and marked off squares on a vacant lot where a tobacco barn used to be. I wasn't there at the time, of course, but Mr. Dollar could tell you the whole story. Up went a palace of stucco angels, and on Saturday afternoons we devils of the common clay hunkered down in those seats with our popcorn, candy, and Yoo-Hoos and for a few hours our parents had breathing space again.
anyway, my two buddies and me were sitting watching Tarzan on a Saturday afternoon. I forget why Davy Ray wasn't there; I think he was grounded for hitting Molly Lujack in the head with a pine cone. But satellites could go up and spit sparks in outer space. a man with a beard and a cigar could jabber in Spanish on an island off the coast of Florida while blood reddened a bay for pigs. That bald-headed Russian could bang his shoe. Soldiers could be packing their gear for a trip to a jungle called Vietnam. atom bombs could go off in the desert and blow dummies out of tract-house living rooms. We didn't care about any of that. It wasn't magic. Magic was inside the Lyric on Saturday afternoons, at the double feature, and we took full advantage of getting ourselves lost in the spell.
I recall watching a TV show-"77 Sunset Strip"-where the hero walked into a theater named the Lyric, and I got to thinking about that word. I looked it up in my massive two-thousand-four-hundred-and-eighty-three-page dictionary Granddaddy Jaybird had given me for my tenth birthday. "Lyric," it said: "Melodic. Suitable for singing. a lyric poem. Of the lyre." That didn't seem to make much sense in regards to a movie theater, until I continued following lyre in my dictionary. Lyre took me into the story-poems sung by traveling minstrels back when there were castles and kings. Which took me back to that wonderful word: story. It seemed to me at an early age that all human communication-whether it's TV, movies, or books-begins with somebody wanting to tell a story. That need to tell, to plug into a universal socket, is probably one of our grandest desires. and the need to hear stories, to live lives other than our own for even the briefest moment, is the key to the magic that was born in our bones.
"Stab it, Tarzan! Stab it!" Ben yelled, and that elbow was working overtime. Ben Sears was a plump boy with brown hair cropped close to his skull, and he had a high, girlish voice and wore horn-rimmed glasses. The shirt wasn't made that could stay tucked into his jeans. He was so clumsy his shoelaces could strangle him. He had a broad chin and fat cheeks and he would never grow up to resemble Tarzan in any girl's dream, but he was my friend. By contrast to Ben's chubby exuberance, Johnny Wilson was slim, quiet, and bookish. He had some Indian blood in him that showed in his black, luminous eyes. Under the summer sun his skin turned brown as a pine nut. His hair was almost black, too, and slicked back with Vitalis except for a cowlick that shot up like a wild onion at the crease of his part. His father, who was a foreman at the sheet rock plant between Zephyr and Union Town, wore his hair exactly the same way. Johnny's mother was the library teacher at Zephyr Elementary, so I suppose that's how he got his affinity for reading. Johnny ate encyclopedias like any other kid might eat Red Hots or Lemonheads. He had a nose like a Cherokee hatchet and a small scar warped his right eyebrow where his cousin Philbo had hit him with a stick when we were all playing soldiers back in 1960. Johnny Wilson endured schoolyard taunts about being a "squawboy," or having "nigger blood," and he'd been born with a clubfoot to boot, which only doubled the abuse directed at him. He was a stoic before I knew the meaning of the word.
The movie meandered to its conclusion like a jungle river to the sea. Tarzan defeated the evil elephant poachers, returned the Star of Solomon to its tribe, and swung into the sunset. The Three Stooges short subject came on, in which Moe wrenched out Larry's hair by the handfuls and Curly sat in a bathtub full of lobsters. We all had a grand old time.
and then, without fanfare, the second feature began.
It was in black and white, which caused immediate groans from the audience. Everybody knew that color was real life. The title came up on the screen: Invaders from Mars. The movie looked old, like it had been made in the fifties. "I'm goin' for popcorn," Ben announced. "anybody want anythin'i" We said no, and he negotiated the raucous aisle alone.
The credits ended, and the story started.
Ben returned with his bucket of buttered popcorn in time to see what the young hero saw through his telescope, aimed at the stormy night sky: a flying saucer, descending into a sand hill behind his house. Usually the Saturday-afternoon crowd hollered and laughed at the screen when there was no fighting going on, but this time the stark sight of that ominous saucer coming down silenced the house.
I believe that for the next hour and a half the concession stand did no business, though there were kids leaving their seats and running for a view of daylight. The boy in the movie couldn't make anybody believe he'd seen a flying saucer come down, and he watched through his telescope as a policeman was sucked down into a vortex of sand as if by a grotesque, otherworldly vacuum cleaner. Then the policeman came to visit the house and assure the boy that no, of course no flying saucer had landed. Nobody else had seen this flying saucer land, had theyi But the policeman acted... funny. Like he was a robot, his eyes dead in a pasty face. The boy had noticed a weird X-shaped wound on the back of the policeman's neck. The policeman, a jolly gent before his walk to the sand hill, did not smile. He was changed.
The X-shaped wound began to show up on the backs of other necks. No one believed the boy, who tried to make his parents understand there was a nest of Martians in the earth behind his house. Then his parents went out to see for themselves.
Ben had forgotten about the bucket of popcorn in his lap. Johnny sat with his knees pulled up to his chest. I couldn't seem to draw a breath.
Oh, you are such a silly boy, the grim, unsmiling parents told him when they returned from their walk. There is nothing to be afraid of. Nothing. Everything is fine. Come with us, let us go up to where you say you saw this saucer descend. Let us show you what a silly, silly boy you are.
"Don't go," Ben whispered. "Don't go don't go!" I heard his fingernails scrape against the armrests.
The boy ran. away from home, away from the unsmiling strangers. Everywhere he looked, he saw the X-shaped wound. The chief of police had one on the back of his neck. People the boy had always known were suddenly changed, and they wanted to hold him until his parents could come pick him up. Silly, silly boy, they said. Martians in the ground, about to take over the world. Who would ever believe a story like thati
at the end of this horror, the army got down in a honeycomb of tunnels the Martians had burrowed in the ground. The Martians had a machine down there that cut into the back of your neck and turned you into one of them. The leader of the Martians, a head with tentacles in a glass bowl, looked like something that had backed up out of a septic tank. The boy and the army fought against the Martians, who shambled through the tunnels as if fighting the weight of gravity. at the collision of Martian machines and army tanks, with the earth hanging in the balance...
...the boy awakened.
a dream, his father said. His mother smiled at him. a dream. Nothing to fear. Go to sleep, we'll see you in the morning.
Just a bad, bad dream.
and then the boy got up in the dark, peered through his telescope, and saw a flying saucer descending from the stormy night sky into a sand hill behind his house.
The lights came up. Saturday afternoon at the movies was over.
"What's wrong with themi" I heard Mr. Stellko, the Lyric's manager, say to one of the ushers as we filed out. "Why're they so darned quieti"
Sheer terror has no voice.
Somehow we managed to get on our bikes and start pedaling. Some kids walked home, some waited for their parents to pick them up. all of us were linked by what we had just witnessed, and when Ben, Johnny, and I stopped at the gas station on Ridgeton Street to get air put in Johnny's front tire, I caught Ben staring at the back of Mr. White's neck, where the sunburned skin folded up.
We parted ways at the corner of Bonner and Hilltop streets. Johnny flew for home, Ben cranked his bike with his stumpy legs, and I fought the rusted chain every foot of the distance. My bike had seen its best days. It was ancient when it came to me, by way of a flea market. I kept asking for a new one, but my father said I would have to do with what I had or do without. Money was tight some months; going to the movies on Saturday was a luxury. I found out, sometime later, that Saturday afternoon was the only time the springs in my parents' bedroom could sing a symphony without me wondering what was going on.
"You have funi" my mother asked when I came in from playing with Rebel.
"Yes ma'am," I said. "The Tarzan movie was neat."
"Double feature, wasn't iti" Dad inquired, sitting on the sofa with his feet up. The television was tuned to an exhibition baseball game; it was getting to be that time of year.
"Yes sir." I walked on past them, en route to the kitchen and an apple.
"Well, what was the other movie abouti"
"Oh... nothin'," I answered.
Parents can smell a mouse quicker than a starving cat. They let me get my apple, wash it under the faucet, polish it, and then bring it back into the front room. They let me sink my teeth into it, and then my dad looked up from the Zenith and said, "What's the matter with youi"
I crunched the apple. Mom sat down next to Dad, and their eyes were on me. "Siri" I asked.
"Every other Saturday you burst in here like gangbusters wantin' to tell us all about the movies. We can't hardly stop you from actin' 'em out scene by scene. So what's the matter with you todayi"
"Uh... I guess I... don't know, exactly."
"Come here," Mom said. When I did, her hand flew to my forehead. "Not runnin' a fever. Cory, you feel all righti"
"So one movie was about Tarzan," my father plowed on, bulldog stubborn. "What was the other movie abouti"
I supposed I could tell them the title. But how could I tell them what it was really abouti How could I tell them that the movie I had just seen tapped the primal fear of every child alive: that their parents would, in an instant of irreversible time, be forever swept away and replaced by cold, unsmiling aliensi "It was... a monster movie," I decided to say.
"That must've been right up your alley, then." Dad's attention veered back to the baseball game as a bat cracked like a pistol shot. "Whoa! Run for it, Mickey!"
The telephone rang. I hurried to answer it before my folks could ask me any more questions. "Coryi Hi, this is Mrs. Sears. Can I speak to your mother, pleasei"
"Just a minute. Momi" I called. "Phone for you!"
Mom took the receiver, and I had to go to the bathroom. Number one, thankfully. I wasn't sure I was ready to sit on the toilet with the memory of that tentacled Martian head in my mind.
"Rebeccai" Mrs. Sears said. "How are youi"
"Doin' fine, Lizbeth. You get your raffle ticketsi"
"I sure did. Four of them, and I hope at least one is lucky."
"Well, the reason I'm callin' is, Ben got back from the movies just a little while ago and I was wonderin' how Cory is."
"Coryi He's-" She paused, and in her mind she was considering my strange state. "He says he's fine."
"So does Ben, but he acts a little... I don't know, maybe 'bothered' is the word I'm lookin' for. Usually he hounds the heck out of Sim and me wantin' to tell us about the movies, but today we can't get him to talk. He's out back right now. Said he wants to make sure about somethin', but he won't tell us what."
"Cory's in the bathroom," my mother said, as if that, too, was a piece of the puzzle. She cast her voice lower, in case I could hear over my waterfall. "He does act a little funny. You think somethin' happened between 'em at the moviesi"
"I thought of it. Maybe they had a fallin'-out."
"Well, they've been friends for a long time, but it does happen."
"Happened with me and amy Lynn McGraw. We were fast friends for six years and then we didn't speak for a whole year over a lost packet of sewin' needles. But I was thinkin', maybe the boys ought to get together. If they've had an argument, maybe they ought to work it out right off."
"I was gonna ask Ben if he'd like Cory to spend the night. Would that be all right with youi"
"I don't mind, but I'll have to ask Tom and Cory."
"Wait a minute," Mrs. Sears said, "Ben's comin' in." My mother heard a screen door slam. "Beni I've got Cory's mother on the phone. Would you like Cory to spend the night here tonighti" My mother listened, but she couldn't make out what Ben was saying over the flush of our toilet. "He says he'd like that," Mrs. Sears told her.
I emerged from the bathroom, into the well-meaning complicity. "Cory, would you like to spend the night at Ben's housei"
I thought about it. "I don't know," I said, but I couldn't tell her why. The last time I'd spent the night over there, back in February, Mr. Sears hadn't come home all night and Mrs. Sears had walked the floor fretting about where he might be. Ben told me his father took a lot of overnight trips and he asked me not to say anything.
"Ben wants you to come," Mom prodded, mistaking my reluctance.
I shrugged. "Okay. I guess."
"Go make sure it's all right with your father." While I went to the front room to ask, my mother said to Mrs. Sears, "I know how important friendship is. We'll get 'em patched up if there's any problem."
"Dad says okay," I told her when I returned. If my father was watching a baseball game, he would be agreeable to flossing his teeth with barbed wire.
"Lizbethi He'll be there. 'Round six o'clocki" She put her hand over the mouthpiece and said to me, "They're havin' fried chicken for dinner."
I nodded and tried to summon a smile, but my thoughts were in the tunnels where the Martians plotted the destruction of the human race, town by town.
"Rebeccai How're things goin'i" Mrs. Sears asked. "You know what I mean."
"Run on, Cory," she told me, and I did even though I knew important things were about to be discussed. "Well," she said to Lizbeth Sears, "Tom's sleepin' a little better now, but he still has the nightmares. I wish I could do somethin' to help, but I think he just has to work it out for himself."
"I hear the sheriff's about given it up."
"It's been three weeks without any kind of lead. J.T. told Tom on Friday that he sent word out all over the state, Georgia and Mississippi, too, but he hasn't come up with a thing. It's like the man in that car came from another planet."
"Now, there's a chilly thought."
"Somethin' else," my mother said, and she sighed heavily. "Tom's... changed. It's more than the nightmares, Lizbeth." She turned toward the kitchen pantry and stretched the cord as far as it would go so there was no chance of Dad hearing. "He's careful to lock all the doors and windows, where before he didn't care about locks. Up until it happened, we left our doors unlocked most of the time, like everybody else does. Now Tom gets up two or three times in the night to check the bolts. and last week he came home from his route with red mud on his shoes, when it hadn't rained. I think he went back to the lake."
"What on earth fori"
"I don't know. To walk and think, I suppose. I remember when I was nine years old I had a yellow cat that got run over by a truck in front of our house. Calico's blood stayed on the pavement for a long time. That place pulled me. I hated it, but I had to go there and see where Calico died. I always thought that there was somethin' I could've done to keep him alive. Or maybe up until it happened, I thought everythin' lived forever." She paused, staring at pencil marks on the back door that showed the steady progress of my growth. "I think Tom's got a lot on his mind right now."
Their conversation rolled on into the realm of this and that, though at the center of it was the incident at Saxon's Lake. I watched the baseball game with Dad, and I noticed that he kept closing and opening his right hand as if he were either trying to grasp something or free himself from a grip. Then it got time to get ready to go, and I gathered up my pajamas, my toothbrush, and another set of socks and underwear and shoved everything down in my army surplus knapsack. Dad told me to be careful and Mom told me to have fun, but to be back in the morning in time for Sunday school. I rubbed Rebel's head and threw a stick for him to chase, and then I climbed on my bike and pedaled away.
Ben didn't live very far, only a half mile or so from my house at the dead end of Deerman Street. On Deerman Street I pedaled quietly, because guarding the corner of Deerman and Shantuck was the somber gray stone house where the notorious Branlin brothers lived. The Branlins, thirteen and fourteen years of age, had peroxided blond hair and delighted in destruction. Oftentimes they roamed the neighborhood on their matching black bicycles like vultures searching for fresh meat. I had heard from Davy Ray Callan that the Branlins sometimes tried to run cars off the street with their speeding black bikes, and that he'd actually witnessed Gotha Branlin, the oldest, tell his own mother to go to the bad place. Gotha and Gordo were like the Black Plague; you hoped they wouldn't get you, but once they laid a hand on you, there was no escape.
So far I had been insignificant to their careening meanness. I planned for it to stay that way.
Ben's house was much like my own. Ben had a brown dog named Tumper, who got up from his belly on the front porch to bark my arrival. Ben came out to meet me, and Mrs. Sears said hello and asked if I wanted a glass of root beer. She was dark-haired and had a pretty face, but she had hips as big as watermelons. Inside the house, Mr. Sears came up from his woodshop in the basement to speak to me. He was large and round, too, his heavy-jowled face ruddy under crew-cut brown hair. Mr. Sears was a happy man with a buck-toothed grin, woodshavings clinging to his striped shirt, and he told me a joke about a Baptist preacher and an outhouse that I didn't really understand, but he laughed to cue me and Ben said, "aw, Daddy!" as if he'd heard that dumb joke a dozen times.
I unpacked my knapsack in Ben's room, where he had nifty collections of baseball cards, bottle caps, and wasps' nests. as I got squared away, Ben sat down on his Superman bedspread and said, "Did you tell your folks about the moviei"
"No. Did youi"
"Uh-uh." He picked at a loose thread on Superman's face. "How come you didn'ti"
"I don't know. How come you didn'ti"
Ben shrugged, but thoughts were working in his head. "I guess," he said, "it was too awful to tell."
"I went out back," Ben said. "No sand. Just rock."
We both agreed the Martians would have a tough time drilling through all the red rock in the hills around Zephyr, if they were to come calling. Then Ben opened a cardboard box and showed me his Civil War bubble gum cards that had gory paintings of guys getting shot, bayoneted, and clobbered by cannon balls, and we sat making up a story for each card until his mother rang a bell to say it was time for fried chicken.
after dinner-and Mrs. Sears's wonderful black bottom pie washed down with a glass of cold Green Meadows milk-we all played a game of Scrabble. Ben's parents were partners, and Mr. Sears kept trying to pass made-up words that even I knew weren't in the dictionary, like "kafloom" and "goganus." Mrs. Sears said he was as crazy as a monkey in itching powder, but she grinned at his antics just like I did. "Coryi" he said. "Didja hear the one about the three preachers tryin' to get into heaveni" and before I could say "No" he was off on a joke-telling jaunt. He seemed to favor the preacher jokes, and I had to wonder what Reverend Lovoy at the Methodist church would think of them.
It was past eight o'clock and we'd started our second game when Tumper barked on the front porch and a few seconds later there was a knock on the door. "I'll get it," Mr. Sears said. He opened the door to a wiry, craggy-faced man wearing jeans and a red-checked shirt. "Hey, Donny!" Mr. Sears greeted him. "Come on in, you buzzard!"
Mrs. Sears was watching her husband and the man named Donny. I saw her jaw tense.
Donny said something in a low voice to Mr. Sears, and Mr. Sears called to us, "Me and Donny are gonna sit on the porch for a while. Y'all go on and play."
"Honi" Mrs. Sears drew up a smile, but I could tell it was in danger of slipping. "I need a partner."
The screen door closed at his back.
Mrs. Sears sat very still for a long moment, staring at the door. Her smile had gone.
"Momi" Ben said. "It's your turn."
"all right." She tried to pull her attention to the Scrabble tiles. I could tell she was trying as hard as she could, but her gaze kept slipping back to the screen door. Out on the porch, Mr. Sears and the wiry man named Donny were sitting in folding chairs, their conversation quiet and serious. "all right," Ben's mother said again. "Let me think now, just give me a minute."
More than a minute passed. Off in the distance, a dog began barking. Then two more. Tumper took up the call. Mrs. Sears was still choosing her tiles when the door flew open again.
"Hey, Lizbeth! Ben! Come out here, and hurry!"
"What is it, Simi What's-"
"Just come out here!" he hollered, and of course we all got up from the table to see.
Donny was standing in the yard, looking toward the west. The neighborhood dogs were really whooping it up. Lights burned in windows, and other people were emerging to find out what the uproar was about. Mr. Sears pointed in the direction Donny was looking. "You ever seen anythin' like that beforei"
I looked up. So did Ben, and I heard him gasp as if he'd been stomach-punched.
It was coming down from the night sky, descending from the canopy of stars. It was a glowing red thing, purple spears of fire trailing behind it, and it left a white trail of smoke against the darkness.
In that instant my heart almost exploded. Ben took a backward step, and he might have fallen had he not collided with one of his mother's hips. I knew in my hammering, rioting heart that everywhere across Zephyr kids who had been in the Lyric theater that afternoon were looking up at the sky and feeling terror peel the lips back from their teeth.
I came very close to wetting my pants. Somehow I held my water, but it was a near thing.
Ben blubbered. He made mangled sounds. He wheezed, "It's... it's... it's..."
"a comet!" Mr. Sears shouted. "Look at that thing fall!"
Donny grunted and slid a toothpick into the corner of his mouth. I glanced at him and by the porch light saw his dirty fingernails.
It was falling in a long, slow spiral, ribbons of sparks flaying out in its wake. It made no noise, but people were shouting for other people to look and some of the dogs had started that kind of howling that makes your backbone quiver.
"Comin' down between here and Union Town," Donny observed. His head was cocked to one side, his face gaunt and his dark hair slick with brilliantine. "Comin' down like a sonofabitch."
Between Zephyr and Union Town lay eight miles of hills, woods, and swamp cut by the Tecumseh River. It was Martian territory if there ever was, I thought, and I felt all the circuits in my brain jangle like fire alarms going off. I looked at Ben. His eyes seemed to be bulging outward by the cranial pressure of pure fear. The only thing I could think of when I stared at the fireball again was the tentacled head in the glass bowl, its face serenely evil and slightly Oriental. I could hardly stand up, my legs were so weak.
"Hey, Simi" Donny's voice was low and slow, and he was chewing on the toothpick. "How about we go chase that bugger downi" His face turned toward Mr. Sears. His nose was flat, as if it had been busted by a big fist. "What do you say, Simi"
"Yeah!" he answered. "Yeah, we'll go chase it down! Find out where it falls!"
"No, Sim!" Mrs. Sears said. In her voice was a note of pleading. "Stay with me and the boys tonight!"
"It's a comet, Lizbeth!" he explained, grinning. "How many times in your life do you get to chase a cometi"
"Please, Sim." She grasped his forearm. "Stay with us. all righti" I saw her fingers tighten.
"about to hit." Donny's jaw muscles clenched as he chewed. "Time's wastin'."
"Yeah! Time's wastin', Lizbeth!" Mr. Sears pulled away. "I'll get my jacket!" He rushed up the porch steps and into the house. Before the screen door could slam, Ben was running after his father.
Mr. Sears went back to the bedroom he shared with his wife. He opened the closet, got his brown poplin jacket, and shrugged into it. Then he reached up onto the closet's top shelf, his hand winnowing under a red blanket. as Mr. Sears's hand emerged, Ben walked into the room behind him and caught a glint of metal between his father's fingers.
Ben knew what it was. He knew what it was for.
"Daddyi" he said. "Please stay home."
"Hey, boy!" His father turned toward him, grin in place, and he slid the metal object down into his jacket and zipped the jacket up. "I'm gonna go see where the comet comes down with Mr. Blaylock. I won't be but a little while."
Ben stood in the doorway, between his father and the outside world. His eyes were wet and scared. "Can I go with you, Daddyi"
"No, Ben. Not this time. I gotta go now."
"Let me go with you. Okayi I won't make any noise. Okayi"
"No, son." Mr. Sears's hand clamped down on Ben's shoulder. "You have to stay here with your mother and Cory." Though Ben stiffly resisted, his father's hand moved him aside. "You be a good boy, now," Mr. Sears said as his big shoes carried him toward the door.
Ben made one more attempt by grasping his father's fingers and trying to hold him. "Don't go, Daddy!" he said. "Don't go! Please don't go!"
"Ben, don't act like a baby. Let me go, son."
"No, sir," Ben answered. The wetness of his eyes had overflowed onto his pudgy cheeks. "I won't."
"I'm just goin' out to see where the comet falls. I won't be gone but a little while."
"If you go... if you go..." Ben's throat was clogging up with emotion, and he could hardly squeeze the words out. "You'll come back changed."
"Let's hit the road, Sim!" Donny Blaylock urged from the front porch.
"Beni" Mr. Sears said sternly. "I'm goin' with Mr. Blaylock. act like a man, now." He worked his fingers free, and Ben stood there looking up at him with an expression of agony. His father scraped a hand through Ben's cropped hair. "I'll bring you back a piece of it, all right, Tigeri"
"Don't go," the weeping tiger croaked.
His father turned his back on him, and strode out the screen door to where Donny Blaylock waited. I was still standing with Mrs. Sears in the yard, watching the fiery thing in its last few seconds of descent. Mrs. Sears said, "Simi Don't do it," but her voice was so weak it didn't carry. Mr. Sears did not speak to his wife, and he followed the other man to a dark blue Chevy parked at the curb. Red foam dice hung from the radio antenna, and the right rear side was smashed in. Donny Blaylock slid behind the wheel and Mr. Sears got in the other side. The Chevy started up like a cannon going off, shooting black exhaust. as the car pulled away, I heard Mr. Sears laugh as if he'd just told another preacher joke. Donny Blaylock must've stomped the gas pedal, because the rear tires shrieked as the Chevy tore away up Deerman Street.
I looked toward the west again, and saw the fiery thing disappear over the wooded hills. Its glow pulsed against the dark like a beating heart. It had come to earth somewhere in the wilderness.
There was no sand anywhere out there. The Martians, I thought, were going to have to slog through a lot of mud and waterweeds.
I heard the screen door slam, and I turned around and saw Ben standing on the front porch. He wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. He stared along Deerman Street, as if he were tracking the Chevy's progress, but by that time the car had turned right on Shantuck and was out of sight.
In the distance, probably up in Bruton, dogs were still baying. Mrs. Sears released a long, strengthless sigh. "Let's go in," she said.
Ben's eyes were swollen, but his crying was done. No one seemed to want to finish the game of Scrabble. Mrs. Sears said, "Why don't you boys go play in your room, Beni" and he nodded slowly, his eyes glazed as if he'd taken a heavy blow to the skull. Mrs. Sears went back to the kitchen, where she turned on the water. In Ben's room, I sat on the floor with the Civil War cards while Ben stood at the window.
I could tell he was suffering. I'd never seen him like this before, and I had to say something. "Don't worry," I told him. "It's not Martians. It was a meteor, that's all."
He didn't answer.
"a meteor's just a big hot rock," I said. "There're no Martians inside it."
Ben was silent; his thoughts had him.
"Your dad'll be okay," I said.
Ben spoke, in a voice terrible in its quiet: "He'll come back changed."
"No, he won't. Listen... that was just a movie. It was made up." I realized that as I said this I was letting go of something, and it felt both painful and good at the same time. "See, there's not really a machine that cuts into the backs of people's necks. There's not really a big Martian head in a glass bowl. It's all made up. You don't have to be scared. Seei"
"He'll come back changed," Ben repeated.
I tried, but nothing I could say would make him believe any differently. Mrs. Sears came in, and her eyes looked swollen, too. But she managed a brave smile that hurt my heart, and she said, "Coryi Do you want to take the first bathi"
Mr. Sears was not home by ten o'clock, when his wife switched off the light in Ben's bedroom. I lay under the crisp white sheet beside Ben, listening to the night. a couple of dogs still conversed back and forth, and every once in a while Tumper offered a muttered opinion. "Beni" I whispered. "You awakei" He didn't answer, but the way he was breathing told me he wasn't sleeping. "Don't worry," I said. "Okayi"
He turned over, and pressed his face against his pillow.
Eventually I drifted off. I did not, surprisingly, dream of Martians and X-shaped wounds on the backs of loved ones' necks. In my dream my father swam for the sinking car, and when his head went under, it did not come back up. I stood on the red rock cliff, calling for him, until Lainie came to me like a white mist and took my hand in a damp grip. as she led me away from the lake, I could hear my mother calling to me from the distance, and a figure stood at the edge of the woods wearing a long overcoat that flapped in the wind.
an earthquake woke me up.
I opened my eyes, my heart pounding. Something had crashed; the sound was trapped inside my head. The lights were still off, and the night still reigned. I reached out and touched Ben beside me. He drew in a sharp breath, as if my touch had scared the wits out of him. I heard an engine boom, and I looked out the window toward Deerman Street to see a Chevy's taillights as Donny Blaylock pulled away.
The screen door, I realized. The sound of the screen door slamming had jolted me awake.
"Beni" I rasped, my mouth thick with sleep. "Your dad's come home!"
Something else crashed down in the front room. The whole house seemed to shake.
"Simi" It was Mrs. Sears's voice, high-pitched. "Simi"
I got out of bed, but Ben just lay there. I think he was staring at the ceiling. I walked through the hallway in the dark, my feet squeaking the boards. I bumped into Mrs. Sears, standing where the hall met the front room, no lights on anywhere.
I heard a hoarse, terrible breathing.
It was, I thought, the sound a Martian might make as its alien lungs strained on earthly air.
"Simi" Mrs. Sears said. "I'm right here."
"Right here," a voice answered. "Right... here. Right... fuckin'... here."
It was Mr. Sears's voice, yes. But it was different. Changed. There was no humor in it, no fun, no hint of a preacher joke. It was as heavy as doom, and just as mean.
"Sim, I'm going to turn on the light now."
and there he was.
Mr. Sears was on the floor on his hands and knees, his head bowed and one cheek mashed against the rug. His face looked bloated and wet, his eyes sunken in fleshy folds. The right shoulder of his jacket was dirty, and dirt was smeared on his jeans as if he'd taken a fall in the woods. He blinked in the light, a silver thread of saliva hanging from his lower lip. "Where is iti" he said. "You see iti"
"It's... beside your right hand."
His left hand groped. "You're a goddamned liar," he said.
"Your other hand, Sim," she told him wearily.
His right hand moved toward the metal object lying there. It was a whiskey flask, and his fingers gripped it and pulled it to him.
He sat up on his knees and stared at his wife. a fierceness passed over his face, ugly in its swiftness. "Don't you smart-mouth me," he said. "Don't you open that big fat smart mouth."
I stepped back then, into the hallway. I was seeing a monster that had slipped from its skin.
Mr. Sears struggled to stand. He grabbed hold of the table that held the Scrabble tiles, and it went over in an explosion of vowels and consonants. Then he made it to his feet, and he unscrewed the cap off the flask and licked the bottle neck.
"Come on to bed, Sim," she said; it was spoken without strength, as if she knew full well what the outcome of this would be.
"Come on to bed!" he mocked. "Come on to bed!" His lip curled. "I don't wanna come to bed, you fat-assed cow!"
I saw Mrs. Sears tremble as if she'd been stung by a whip. a hand pressed to her mouth. "Oh... Sim," she moaned, and it was an awful sound to hear.
I backed away some more. and then Ben walked past me in his yellow pajamas, his face blank of expression but tear tracks glistening on his cheeks.
There are things much worse than monster movies. There are horrors that burst the bounds of screen and page, and come home all twisted up and grinning behind the face of somebody you love. at that moment I knew Ben would have gladly looked into that glass bowl at the tentacled Martian head rather than into his father's drunk-red eyes.
"Hey, Benny boy!" Mr. Sears said. He staggered and caught himself against a chair. "Hey, you know what happened to youi You know whati The best part of you stayed in that busted rubber, that's what happened."
Ben stopped beside his mother. Whatever emotion tortured him inside, it did not show on his face. He must've known this was going to happen, I realized. Ben had known when his father went with Donny Blaylock, he would come home changed not by the Martians but by the home brew in that flask.
"You're a real sight. The both of you." Mr. Sears tried to screw the cap back on, but he couldn't make it fit. "Standin' there with your smart mouths. You think this is funny, don't you, boyi"
"Yes you do! You can't wait to go laugh and tell everybody, can youi Where's that Mackenson boyi Hey, you!" He spotted me, back in the hall, and I flinched. "You can tell that goddamned milkman daddy of yours to go straight to hell. Hear mei"
I nodded, and his attention wandered away from me. This was not Mr. Sears talking, not really; this was the voice of what the flask flayed raw and bloody inside his soul, what it stomped and kicked and tortured until the voice had to scream for release.
"What'd you sayi" He stared at Mrs. Sears, his eyelids swollen and heavy. "What'd you sayi"
"I... didn't say-"
He was on her like a charging bull. Mrs. Sears cried out and retreated but he grabbed the front of her gown with one hand and reared his other hand back, the flask gripped in it, as if to smash her across the face. "Yes you did!" he shouted. " Don't you backtalk me!"
"Daddy, don't!" Ben pleaded, and he flung both arms around one of his father's thighs and hung tight. The moment stretched, Mr. Sears about to strike his wife, me standing in a state of shock in the hallway, Ben holding on to his father's leg.
Mrs. Sears's lips trembled. With the flask poised to strike her face, she spoke: "I... said... that we both love you, and that... we want you to be happy. That's all." Tears welled up and trickled. "Just happy."
He didn't speak. His eyes closed, and he opened them again with an effort.
"Happy," he whispered. Ben was sobbing now, his face pressed against his father's thigh, his knuckles white at the twining of his fingers. Mr. Sears lowered his hand, and he let go of his wife's gown. "Happy. See, I'm happy. Look at me smile."
His face didn't change.
He stood there, breathing roughly, his hand with the flask in it hanging at his side. He started to step one way and then another, but he couldn't seem to decide which way to go.
"Why don't you sit down, Simi" Mrs. Sears asked. She sniffled and wiped her dripping nose. "Want me to help youi"
He nodded. "Yeah. Help."
Ben let him go, and Mrs. Sears guided her husband to his chair. He collapsed into it, like a large pile of dirty laundry. He stared at the opposite wall, his mouth hanging open. She drew up another chair close beside him. There was a feeling in the room as if a storm had passed. It might come again, some other night, but for now it was gone.
"I don't think-" He stopped, as if he'd lost what he was about to say. He blinked, searching for it. "I don't think I'm doin' so good," he said.
Mrs. Sears leaned his head gently on her shoulder. He squeezed his eyes shut, his chest heaved, and he began to cry, and I walked out of the house into the cool night air in my pajamas because it didn't seem right for me to be in there, a stranger at a private pain.
I sat down on the porch steps. Tumper plodded over, sat beside me, and licked my hand. I felt an awful long way from home.
Ben had known. What courage it must have taken for him to lie in that bed, pretending to sleep. He had known that when the screen door slammed, long after midnight, the invader who wore his father's flesh would be in the house. The knowing and the waiting must've been a desperate torment.
after a while, Ben came outside and sat on the steps, too. He asked me if I was all right, and I said I was. I asked him if he was all right. He said yeah. I believed him. He had learned to live with this, and though it was a horrible thing, he was grappling with it the best he could.
"My daddy has spells," Ben explained. "He says bad things sometimes, but he can't help it."
"He didn't mean what he said about your daddy. You don't hate him, do youi"
"No," I said. "I don't."
"You don't hate me, do youi"
"No," I told him. "I don't hate anybody."
"You're a real good buddy," Ben said, and he put his arm around my shoulders.
Mrs. Sears came out and brought us a blanket. It was red. We sat there as the stars slowly wheeled their course, and soon the birds of morning began to peep.
at the breakfast table, we had bowls of hot oatmeal and blueberry muffins. Mrs. Sears told us that Mr. Sears was sleeping, that he would sleep most of the day, and that if I wanted to I could ask my mother to call her and they'd have a long talk. after I got dressed and packed all my belongings into the knapsack, I thanked Mrs. Sears for having me over, and Ben said he'd see me at school tomorrow. He walked me out to my bike, and we talked for a few minutes about our Little League baseball team that would soon start practicing. It was getting to be that time of year.
Never again would we mention to each other the movie where Martians plotted to conquer the earth, town by town, father by mother by child. We had both seen the face of the invader.
It was Sunday morning. I pedaled for home, and when I looked back at the house at the dead end of Deerman Street, my friend waved so long.
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