11560 words, novelette
Teenagers from Outer Space
The first aliens arrived in Milledgeville, Ohio, when I was still in diapers. By the time I’d graduated into the frilly, pink dresses my mother put me in for elementary school, you saw them around occasionally, strolling down Main Street or picnicking by the bandshell in the park. They’d bought into a rundown neighborhood in the east end of town—primarily Polish and Estonian to that point, though once the aliens began picking up mortgages over there, most people just called it Bug Town. This was lazy thinking because the aliens didn’t look anything like bugs, but what are you going to do?
I never really had much personal contact with them until their kids started showing up in my high school classes. There was grumbling, of course. But who was going to tell a hulking seven-foot alien his kid couldn’t come to school? And so I studied Great Expectations and Home Economics in the company of creatures not of this Earth. Which sounds more dramatic than it really was. We all got along well enough in class, even if we did keep to our own sides of the lunchroom.
Which is where it might have ended if it hadn’t been for my best friend, Joan Hayden.
The first thing you have to understand about Joan is that she had poor taste in boys. Everybody agreed. First there’d been Luke Jackson, a disaffected former jock who’d been kicked off the football team when he showed up at the Homecoming game half in the bag. After that, she’d taken up with a guy named Jimmy Ford, violating the unspoken divide between the kids in calculus and the ones in shop. That was about the time Joan got clumsy—started slipping in the shower and running into doors—so when she worked up the courage to send Jimmy packing, we all agreed that she was well shut of him.
Which brings us to Johnny Fabriano, where this story really gets underway. Johnny looked like a refugee from The Wild Ones—black leather jacket, motorcycle boots, and a greasy DA that looked like it hadn’t been washed in a week. He’d dropped out of high school the day he’d turned sixteen and had spent the last five years hanging around Red’s Billiards Parlor, cadging cigarettes and hustling pool. He was a dead shot, and, rumor had it, he’d won his car in a hotly contested game of Eight Ball with a gearhead from Brookton. The car itself was the envy of every would-be greaser in town—a chopped ’49 Mercury coupé painted a glossy midnight purple with stylized tongues of yellow and red flame licking at the hood and fenders.
Joan had already gotten a reputation for being fast—undeserved, I have to put in, and if anyone knew, I did, because Joan confided everything in me. She’d moved in next door when we were both in second grade, and we’d been joined at the hip ever since, sharing every joy and affliction, from scraped knees to first periods, which when Joan’s made its debut, I remember how jealous I was—until mine happened along two months later, inflicting such misery upon me that I have never envied anyone anything ever since, or almost never, anyway.
Joan had grown up in a Pentecostal church, daughter to a strict disciplinarian who saw himself as the earthly agent of the Lord. And if at one level Joan rejected all that, at another level she still believed. You never really escape your childhood training, I guess, and it was this division in Joan’s personality that ultimately caused all the trouble. For while Johnny Fabriano was a perfect candidate to give her father an apoplexy, he was also a young man with an agenda of his own.
You see where this is going, of course, and it’s not a happy place. But when the alien got involved, his good intentions only made everything worse. Good intentions usually do.
My name is Nancy Miller, by the way, and it’s nice to meet you, I’m sure. If you haven’t already figured it out, this story isn’t really mine to tell, but my mother always called me Chatty Cathy, so I suppose it’s only natural that it should fall to me in the end. And it’s important that you understand that I wasn’t always on the scene. Much of what follows is reconstructed from second-hand reports with all the bias and self-interest inherent in such accounts. In short, these are the facts as I understand them. If you want the truth, you’ll have to sort it out for yourself. You always do, I guess.
So cast me in a supporting role: plain-faced confidante and collaborator to the beautiful lead. Joan really was beautiful, too, which is to say blonde and buxom in the slightly zaftig mold then in fashion. She inspired plenty of interest among the boys at Milledgeville High, but as I’ve already said, she never returned the affections of the boys who might have brought her happiness, if happiness was even an option for her, and I think it probably wasn’t.
Certainly it wasn’t with Johnny Fabriano. Like I said, he had an agenda of his own, and if, on Joan’s part, he was calculated to infuriate her father, then there’s some small irony that had it not been for her father they might never have met in the first place. Sometimes just stopping for gas can change the entire course of your life, and that’s exactly what happened when her father decided to swing their old Caddy into Staley’s Gulf station one September Sunday after church.
Gas stations were full service back then—the days of pumping your own fuel were still decades away—and while Mr. Staley fussed with the Caddy’s tire pressure, Johnny’s ’49 Merc roared up to the neighboring pump. Both Joan and her father knew the car, of course—who hadn’t seen it around town?—and Joan at least knew its driver by reputation. What she didn’t know was what a sweet smile Johnny had. But he did, I can vouch for that myself, and when he turned his head to look at Joan, he passed one to her, like a gift.
Maybe it would have ended there, a shared smile in a gas station parking lot, but Joan’s father couldn’t help weighing in on the matter. “What a cheap hood,” he said, pouring into those two words all the disdain that only those certain of their place in Heaven can summon.
That was enough for Joan, of course. As her father wheeled the car out into the street she smiled back at Johnny.
When she told me about it that night, she was almost incandescent with excitement, so I wasn’t surprised when she contrived an excuse to walk by Red’s Billiards Parlor after school the next day. Johnny’s car was parked at the curb outside and just as we came abreast of the place—I could already see Joan calculating her odds of coaxing me inside—who should appear in the door but Johnny himself, with a cigarette tucked behind his ear and a toothpick in his mouth.
He did a double-take, looked Joan up and down, and granted her another smile. It was like the sun coming out from behind a cloud, that smile. I practically melted myself, and he didn’t even know I was there.
“Gas station girl,” he said, and Joan said, “I’m surprised you remember.”
“Remember?” he said. “How could I forget?”
He did some dexterous little trick with his tongue and passed the toothpick from one side of his mouth to the other. “You got a name, Gas Station Girl?”
So she told him her name, and then she said, “You’re Johnny Fabriano. I know you.”
You could see it pleased him, her knowing his name like that. The way they were looking at each other, it could only go one way, and nowhere good, so I stepped in front of her and held out my hand, hoping to forestall the inevitable. “I’m Nancy,” I said.
He ignored the hand and dipped his chin to acknowledge me. “How you doing, Nancy,” he said, and then, taking me by the shoulders, he steered me gently to the side. “Where you girls heading?” he asked, but it was really Joan he was speaking to.
“Not that way. Not unless you’re planning to pay Bug Town a visit.” Which was true. We’d already reached the end of the line unless we wanted to stop in for drinks at some dive with sawdust on the floor and “Nobody’s Lonesome for Me” on the jukebox. Bug Town lay beyond, and Bug Town was forbidden territory. It had been abandoned to the aliens, and those who did work up the spit to visit wouldn’t say much except that it was “catching strange.” It was the “catching” part of that phrase that concerned our parents, for those who spent much time in Bug Town often became odd themselves. They got a faraway look in their eyes, as if they were listening to some distant music that no one else could hear, and drifted into silence. Once in a while you heard about some daring kid making a midnight run through the place, tires screeching, but details were mighty slim on the ground—it was always a friend of a friend of a friend, no one you ever knew—so I figured such afterhours adventures for empty boasts. In short, the aliens walked among us, but we did not walk among the aliens. Which is why, when Johnny asked if we were planning an excursion of our own, I was shocked when Joan shrugged and said, “Sure we are.”
Johnny, on the other hand, didn’t blink an eye. “Maybe you’d like a ride instead.”
“We’ll walk,” I said, taking Joan’s elbow. “Home.”
I was wasting my breath.
“Sounds like fun to me,” Joan said, prying my fingers loose, and I knew then that it was a lost cause. There was the car, there was the smile, and there was the “cheap hood” himself. Her father already loathed him. So when she said, “You coming, Nance?” I said the only thing I could in response:
“No, Joan, and you shouldn’t go either.”
Like I said, wasting my breath.
A minute later, Johnny keyed the Merc’s engine to life and they roared off down Main Street. This time Joan really had gone too far, I thought as I walked home alone—and at the time I had no idea just how far she’d gone.
They really did go all the way to Bug Town, though I wouldn’t learn that until later that night, long after the scene that unfolded at the Haydens’ when she got home. Any sane girl would have had Johnny drop her off a couple of blocks from her house and manufactured some plausible excuse for her tardiness—an extra hour at the library, a study session that had run too long. Not Joan. That wouldn’t have created the intended effect. I was watching from my open bedroom window—the September air still had the glow of summer—when the Merc rumbled up to the curb. Joan’s father was waiting at the door. He couldn’t have been home long himself. He hadn’t even loosened his tie. He was an insurance salesman, though why a man so devoted to the rewards of the afterlife should take such an interest in the perils of this one, I never could understand. But he certainly took an interest in the perils Johnny Fabriano posed to his daughter’s eternal soul.
The Merc thundered away before Joan was halfway up the sidewalk. By the time she reached the front porch, the shouting had begun. It continued for the next hour or so, and while I couldn’t make out the words, it didn’t take a genius to figure out the tenor of the back and forth between Joan and her father. Her mother was silent, of course. She knew her place in the Biblical hierarchy of the home. Joan, however—well, her father’s fury only goaded her to greater histrionics. The entire thing culminated in slammed doors.
He’d locked her into her room, of course. He always did.
It wasn’t until after my own dinner that I worked up the courage to call.
“Joan isn’t available, Nancy,” her father told me, and I could hear the suppressed fury in his voice.
“Thank you, Mr. Hayden,” I said. “I guess I’ll catch her in school—”
But I never got to finish the phrase.
“How much do you know about this Johnny Fabriano, Nancy?” he said.
“Not much, sir.”
“Were you with Joan this afternoon?”
I hesitated a moment too long.
“Well, then,” he said. “I’m very disappointed in you, Nancy. In fact, I’d like to speak with your father, if he’s available.”
He was. My mother shook her head in commiseration when I called him over, and my father winked when he took the phone. He listened patiently to Mr. Hayden and made all the right noises in return, but when he finished the conversation, I didn’t get much of a scolding. My father wasn’t the scolding type, and besides we attended the Disciples of Christ Church, which was about as liberal as you could get in Milledgeville, Ohio, in 1955. He bought his insurance from Mr. Hayden, but he didn’t have much in the way of personal respect for him.
“Just be a good friend to her, Nance,” he said. “God knows she needs one, living in that house.”
Around 1:00 AM, Joan woke me with a handful of pebbles at my window. This came as no surprise. Sneaking out was routine business to Joan. Just shimmy down the big oak tree outside her window, and clamber back up it whenever she’d accomplished whatever mischief she had to accomplish.
“So what’s he like?” I whispered the minute I had her installed in my bedroom, and when she responded, “Dreamy, Nance. He’s just dreamy,” my heart fell. “Dreamy” was not good. “Dreamy” had the potential for disaster. But what could I do? Discouraging her would merely encourage her, and encouraging her would do the same. It was an impossible hand to play, and I opted then, as I had opted so many times in the past, not to play it at all. I opted for neutrality. It was as close as I could come to fulfilling my father’s injunction to be a good friend to Joan.
So what I said was, “Dreamy?”
With conviction: “Dreamy. He’s not like other boys, Nancy. He’s not like you think.”
“What do you mean?”
“Nobody understands him. Everybody thinks he’s some—cheap hood”—this last she practically spat—“but he’s not at all. Why, did you know he takes care of his mother? His father’s dead, and she’s not well, and he does just everything for her, and nobody understands what a good heart he has. And he’s so gentle and soft-spoken and he wants to know all about me. He’s really interested in me, not just in, you know—” She broke off, blushing.
Sure, that’s what you think, I didn’t say. What I thought was that Johnny was just smoother than the usual high school lothario who tried to get his hand—or worse—up Joan’s skirt. He was twenty-one. He knew how to play the long game. Like I said, he had an agenda of his own. Have you ever known a man who didn’t?
“Did you kiss him?”
“Just once. Right before we pulled up to the house. His lips are so soft. You wouldn’t think that, the way he looks, would you?”
I wouldn’t. But I didn’t say that, either. Instead I asked where they had gone.
Joan looked down. She was quiet for a long time, and when she met my gaze at last, I saw that she was afraid. “We went to Bug Town,” she said.
Which brings me back to the aliens—the bugs, as people called them, though as I said at the beginning of this story, that was just lazy thinking, because they didn’t really look anything like bugs. And maybe their appearance isn’t all you’re curious about. Maybe you want to know where they came from and why and what they planned to do.
But I don’t have answers to any of that.
They just started drifting into town by twos and threes and buying up the decaying houses over in the east end. Who can say why? They were aliens, after all, and their motives were as inscrutable as Joan’s were self-evident.
Their appearance, on the other hand—there was no mystery about that. They were monstrous things to look at: olive-green, seven-foot giants, their squarish heads bifurcated by a big, ropy artery that clove their skulls into disproportionate lobes. It wound down between their lidless, black eyes—shark black, and as empty of expression—and split into frills of bony, close-knit flesh that almost looked like baleen. Their mouths, nestled between those frills, were the most disturbing feature of all: three slavering flaps of tissue that dilated open to reveal jagged, yellow teeth. All this set atop a massive torso armored in bone, with thick arms and legs, and large, three-taloned hands.
My freshman year, the first year the aliens showed up at Milledgeville High, Coach Pack recruited three or four of them for the football team. Where he found uniforms to fit them, I have no idea. Perhaps he had them custom made. In any case, the aliens were lethally effective on the gridiron, and we would win the state championship two years running, despite the virulent protests of our rivals. Yet the aliens—I won’t call them bugs—were essentially gentle creatures, even shy. They kept to themselves and they listened attentively to our teachers. They contributed to class in moist, lisping whispers. They took copious notes.
Their handwriting was beautiful.
But Bug Town? I knew nothing about Bug Town that I haven’t already told you. I was as curious as anybody else about the place—but not curious enough to risk “catching strange,” so part of me stood in admiration of Joan for daring to go there in the first place. Another part was furious with her, knowing how much she’d risked to defy her father and her father’s god.
But whatever her motivations, Joan had little to say about Bug Town.
When I asked her about it, her gaze grew distant, as though she were looking straight through me to some faraway horizon, and when she answered me, her voice was a hollow whisper. I knew then that she’d been touched by strangeness, but I did not yet perceive how deep the wound ran or how unbearable its consequences would be—not merely for her and Johnny Fabriano, but for us all.
I began to get an inkling of that—but nothing more—the next day at school.
There were two aliens in our first-period English class. I can’t tell you their real names. I can’t reproduce their slobbery, whistling language, and certainly not on the page. But when the aliens moved to Milledgeville, they’d taken human names, as well. So you’d see “Jim” at the hardware store, sighting down two-by-fours to make sure they hadn’t warped, or “Susan” at the A&P, inquiring about the freshness of the tomatoes. None of them had quite mastered English pronunciation—I expect their weird, dilating mouths precluded mastery—but they could make themselves understood well enough to get along. “Thim” got unbowed two-by-fours, “Thuthan” fresh tomatoes. And the two aliens in our English class, “Eloieth” (Eloise) and “Tham” (Sam—also the star fullback for the Milledgeville Bears), got straight A’s. The semester wasn’t even two weeks old and they’d already displaced me as Mrs. Guest’s favorite student.
Eloieth and Tham—yes I’m going to call them that, not to mock them, but to keep their intrinsic strangeness front and center—were the kind of students who read their assignments days in advance, sat in the front row, and shot their talons up the minute Mrs. Guest asked a question. But Mrs. Guest didn’t always call on the kids with their hands up. She had an eye for the doodler and the daydreamer, and just as you were drifting off into some pleasant fantasy or other, she’d bludgeon you with a question—which is what happened to Joan that morning. This in itself wasn’t surprising. Joan was an indifferent student at best, if only because her father expected more of her, and she was an inveterate daydreamer. But when Mrs. Guest fired that morning’s question in her direction, Joan seemed to have drifted not into some idle fancy, but into a deep hypnotic state.
She didn’t respond, didn’t so much as stir.
Only when Mrs. Guest repeated the question—pointedly, and at volume—did Joan look up, a puzzled look on her face. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Guest.”
“What are you sorry for, Miss Hayden?”
“I didn’t hear you, that’s all. If you could repeat the question, maybe . . . . ” Joan trailed off into silence.
“Yes, why don’t I repeat myself? Surely I have nothing better to do. In stanza nine, Keats writes—
And there she lulled me asleep,
And there I dream’d—Ah! woe betide!
The latest dream I ever dreamed
On the cold hill’s side.
What do you think he means, Miss Hayden?”
Miss Hayden had no reply on the matter of meaning. The moment stretched. You could hear nothing but the tick of the round schoolroom clock on the wall.
But once again, Joan had drifted off.
Tham made some weird whistling sound deep in his throat.
“Please, Sam,” Mrs. Guest said. “I think we’re all expecting to hear from Miss Hayden.”
Silence. People stared at their desktops. Joan, however, seemed unfazed. She’d propped her elbow on her desk, her chin on the heel of her hand.
“Perhaps you need to see the nurse, Miss Hayden?”
A subdued ripple of nervous laughter greeted this not-very-funny witticism. Mrs. Guest silenced it with a glare.
“Miss Hayden—” she began, but Tham interrupted her, emitting a long, damp series of clicks and whistles. Joan visibly shook herself in response, and a strange expression—half wonder, half fear—crossed her face. I saw this, I say; I did not imagine it. She shook herself in response and met Mrs. Guest’s gaze with an almost physical force. Mrs. Guest shuddered and recoiled. This, too, I saw; this, too, I did not imagine.
“The knight has been lulled into sleep, Mrs. Guest,” Joan said, firmly, as you might speak to a disobedient child. “He has been enchanted into nightmare by a fairy in the guise of a beautiful woman, and though he may wake upon the cold hill’s side, he shall never truly wake again, because one does not wake from a fairy’s enchantment.”
Eloieth let out a long mournful whistle when Joan finished, and then she and Tham both turned away. Silence gripped the classroom. Mrs. Guest swallowed. “I think that’s enough for today,” she said. “If you’ll turn to page 74 and answer the discussion questions, we’ll take up ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ tomorrow”—and she retreated to her desk and sat very still and pale until the bell rang for second period.
I didn’t see Joan for the rest of the day—English was the only class we had together—but when the final bell rang I gathered my books and ran to meet her for the walk home. She wasn’t waiting for me at the picnic tables on the east side of campus—and she’d been waiting there every day as long as we’d been in high school. I didn’t stick around. I knew she wouldn’t be coming. I knew what had happened even before I really knew it, if that makes sense, so I wasn’t surprised when I came around the building and saw her sliding into Johnny’s Merc. I called out to her, but she didn’t wait. She didn’t even turn around.
The shouting match next door went on longer than usual that evening, and though I stayed awake until well after midnight, Joan never showed up at my window. I didn’t see her until we walked to school the next morning—and then only briefly, because we hadn’t gone a block before Johnny’s Merc rolled up to the sidewalk and he reached over to crank down the window.
“Anybody want a ride to school?” he asked.
“I do,” Joan said brightly, opening the door. The interior of the car gleamed, every bit as glossy as the exterior—the lavender dash, the chrome-framed gauges on the instrument panel. The radio was pumping out Chuck Berry, “Maybellene.” Johnny flashed that reckless grin at Joan. I might as well have been wallpaper. So when Johnny said, “Coming, Nancy?” I shook my head and turned away.
“Suit yourself,” Johnny said, and Joan wound up the window as they pulled away from the curb. She hadn’t even said good-bye.
I put my head down, and hurried on alone.
By the time we’d moved on to Idylls of the King in Mrs. Guest’s class—we were reading the part where Vivien imprisons Merlin in the tree—that faraway look in Joan’s eyes had faded. There were no more weird incidents with Tham. And she had re-dedicated herself to infuriating her father by dating Johnny Fabriano.
That was all anyone could talk about. Five years after his premature departure from high school, tales of Johnny’s exploits lingered. Among other things, he was said to have raided the school at midnight to steal a carbon copy of Mr. Dunnigan’s Chem final; fought a legendary bruiser named Otis (now serving time in the state pen) to a blood-spitting draw; and invited Master Sergeant Ashton, the Junior ROTC teacher, who had stormed the beach at Okinawa, to go fuck himself. So every eye was upon her when Joan stepped out of Johnny’s flame-bedizened ride. Mr. Hayden soon put a stop to that—he started driving her to school himself—but I knew that Joan was still seeing Johnny on the sly. More than once I woke to the guttural rumble of his car in a neighboring street, and knew that she’d availed herself of her arboreal exit.
She certainly wasn’t using it to visit me, so I didn’t see much of Joan for a while. I walked to school and back alone, we couldn’t talk during English, and while she still ate lunch at our table, half a dozen other girls did, too. It was hardly the place for confidences. Aside from a chance encounter in the girls’ bathroom—and even that was fleeting—we might have been little more than casual acquaintances.
“Do you still think about it?” I asked as we stood in front of the rusty mirrors.
“Think about what?” she said.
She didn’t answer right away. When she did, she said, “Sometimes it seems like it’s the only thing I can think about.”
Then a gaggle of chattery sophomores burst through the door.
Of course, Joan wasn’t the only point of interest that fall. As October deepened, the town turned its attention to high school football. Tham was enjoying a record-breaking season, sometimes piling up more than two hundred yards a game, and his quarterback, an alien kid named Theven (Steven) who ran a little on the small side at 6’10”, was throwing the ball with the kind of pinpoint accuracy you didn’t usually see outside the NFL. The Bears often bested their opponents by forty points or more, and they could have doubled those numbers if Coach Pack hadn’t routinely pulled Tham and Theven out of the game at halftime. It didn’t seem sporting to keep running up the score, he told the Milledgeville Courier.
The aliens attended every game. The adults kept to sections C and D, but their kids stood in the spirit section and stomped in enthusiasm, occasionally ramming a taloned foot right through the metal risers. And you often ran into them at the concession stand. They were especially fond of chili dogs, ordering them by the dozen—with mustard and onions—and sucking them whole into those flappy mouths, like sucking ping-pong balls into the nozzle of a vacuum cleaner. Their table manners were generally atrocious, though I always assumed that by their own standards they were probably perfectly acceptable. They wore form-fitting knee-length pants—perhaps out of deference to human sensibilities, perhaps not—but otherwise went naked and barefoot.
Their first few days at Milledgeville High they were constantly being sent home for violating the dress code. But when a delegation of alien parents arrived to ask that the principal exempt their children, he capitulated—maybe because he was sitting across his desk from a party of large, green monsters from outer space, and maybe because modesty wasn’t really an issue since no one could tell the male and female aliens apart except by their human names, and even then, who could really say for sure? Maybe they had three sexes, or six, or none at all. They were a weird bunch, taken all together. They were aliens.
But they sure had improved Milledgeville’s lousy football team. The Homecoming game—the usual rout—ended around eight. The dance got underway an hour later. Everybody boogied to “Gum Drop,” the aliens in a herky-jerky rhythm that seemed to have nothing to do with that of the song, the humans (most of them) on beat; but when the DJ spun “Take Me Back,” the alien kids surrendered the floor to their human counterparts. I heard this all second-hand, of course. I wasn’t there—plain old Nancy had no date—just as I wasn’t there to see what happened in the parking lot outside. I heard Joan’s account that night, and I would later hear Johnny Fabriano’s version of events. But I never knew Joan to lie, so I’m confident of that part of the story. My understanding of Tham’s motives, on the other hand—to the extent that he had motives and they can be understood—is the product of pure conjecture, and it may be that I’m too rooted in a human perspective to speculate with any accuracy.
What I know for sure is that Joan had been forbidden to attend both the game and the dance. But Joan was not going to be denied the night out. She couldn’t attend the game. Some Pentecostal ally of her father would betray her. And she couldn’t attend the dance because the chaperones wouldn’t admit someone Johnny’s age (and especially not Johnny himself). But she could make it a special night, and when she slipped out the window around 8:30 that’s just what she intended to do. Apparently Johnny had the same idea. His car was idling a block over, and when she slid in beside him, he had a corsage waiting. They were going to celebrate Homecoming on their own, he said, and if his hand lingered when he pinned the flower to her breast she attributed it to his clumsy fingers.
Johnny’d also bought a couple of bottles of sweet wine. Joan had never tasted the stuff, but she wasn’t going to decline another opportunity to defy her father. Besides, it turned out she liked the giddy feeling it gave her, the devil-may-care release from the inhibitions that her Pentecostal childhood had instilled within her. She was pleasantly buzzed by the time they pulled into the school parking lot—a destination Joan had insisted on over Johnny’s objections. “Let’s go to the dance,” she’d said, giggling, and when Johnny pointed out that they couldn’t go to the dance, she leaned over and planted a lingering kiss on the tender spot just behind his ear. “We can get close,” she whispered, an enticingly ambiguous statement, which is how they wound up parked in the darkest corner of the high school parking lot. The radio was playing the Four Aces, “Melody of Love,” when Johnny leaned in to kiss her, and Joan later told me how she remembered the music and the taste of the sweet wine on his lips. It wasn’t the first time they had kissed, but it was the first time it really seemed to matter, and she surrendered herself to it.
Johnny slid one hand up Joan’s ribs to caress her breast. When she didn’t protest, when indeed she seemed to lean into him, he let the other hand drift down to push its way between her thighs.
This wasn’t what Joan wanted. It never had been. But Johnny’d been intending to claim this prize for more than a month now, so when Joan protested, murmuring, “No, Johnny,” he simply ignored her. He was tugging at her panties when she said it again—
—and by the time she said it a third time, he’d nearly wormed a finger inside them.
Joan gasped. She tried to thrust Johnny away, but he pushed her back against the seat, bearing down with all his weight. He held her there, panting, and that’s when she realized he was fumbling with the buttons on his jeans. That’s when she began to scream in earnest.
At the far end of the parking lot, inside the gym, the DJ had just dropped the needle on “See You Later, Alligator.” The teenagers from outer space took the floor. Their human peers joined them. The chaperones glanced at their watches—they would be shutting the party down at eleven—and looked out over the dance floor. Nobody was listening for screams from the parking lot, and if they had been, they wouldn’t have heard anything over the racket of Bill Haley & His Comets.
Johnny had managed to undo his pants by then.
Joan screamed louder.
And then—this is the part that puzzles me, this the reason that I wish he’d given me his point of view—Tham appeared in the shadows. I still wonder what he was doing out there. None of the aliens smoked, so he hadn’t stepped out to sneak a butt. Nor did they drink, so he wasn’t outside to sneak one of those either. And he certainly wasn’t walking home—Bug Town lay in the opposite direction. Yet there Tham was, and what I keep thinking about, even now, is that time in English when he whistled Joan out of her stupor. Had he communicated the answer to Mrs. Guest’s question, as well? It certainly wasn’t the kind of answer Joan would have provided on her own, after all. Which makes me wonder if there might have been some connection between them, some conduit for alien . . . telepathy, for lack of a better word, that had been laid down during Joan’s visit to Bug Town. What I wonder is if he knew that Joan was in distress and came to rescue her.
Good intentions, right? And all the damage they can do.
But the damage didn’t come till later. In that moment, there in the dark parking lot, those good intentions paid off in a big way. I’m forever thankful to Tham for what he did next. Joan later told me that she was still fighting, still clawing, still screaming. But Johnny was on the verge of overpowering her. He’d just clamped a hand over her mouth to shut her up when Tham’s three massive talons, eight inches each, punctured the roof of Johnny’s beloved ’49 Merc where it curved down to meet the windshield. Johnny cursed and scrambled back against the steering wheel, tugging at his trousers. Joan shoved herself in the other direction and slammed up against the door.
Tham, meanwhile had closed his grip around the metal edge of the roof. He yanked it once, and then a second time, and then—it was like he’d taken hold of the pull-tab on a can of peaches—he just peeled back the top of that Merc and flung it to the pavement. In the crashing instant that followed, Joan told me that she was aware of only three things: Johnny screaming in fury; the pale radiance of the moon filling up the car like water; and the monstrous silhouette of Tham’s massive, asymmetrical head peering down at her against a field of stars. She reacted instinctively, shrieking as Tham reached inside the passenger cabin, fished her out, and set her gently on her feet beside the car. Johnny, meanwhile, had exited the driver’s side door, the tire iron he kept under the seat in hand. What he saw as he rounded the hood—a seven-foot-tall monster wearing knee-length trousers and a Milledgeville High letter jacket—stopped him cold. The tire iron clanged to the pavement. He stumbled, grappling for the hood of the car to hold himself upright.
By this time Joan had stopped screaming.
In the stillness, she could hear the thump of “Love Bug” from the high school gym.
Joan reached up and took one of Tham’s long talons in her hand.
“This isn’t over!” Johnny yelled as they turned away. “This isn’t over, you bitch, you hear me!”—but Joan didn’t bother looking back. She’d never felt safer in her life. Tham walked her home. Somewhere along the way she unpinned Johnny’s crushed corsage and cast it into the shadows beside the sidewalk. And when they reached her house, she marched straight up the walk and rang the bell. Mr. Hayden staggered back into the living room when he opened the door and saw his daughter standing there hand-in-hand with a towering alien from outer space.
“Hello, Daddy,” she said sweetly. “I want you to meet my boyfriend—Sam.”
Whether Tham thought he was her boyfriend or not is also a matter of conjecture. But from that night on, there was something between them, and the consequences of that relationship would eventually ripple outward to engulf us all. But that was later.
The immediate consequences were more predictable.
Mrs. Hayden, who’d walked to the door behind her husband, screamed. And when Mr. Hayden started spewing his typical self-righteous bilge, Joan ignored him. She pushed past him, leading Tham by the talon, and introduced him to her mother. “Nithe to meet you Mthth. Hayden,” Tham said, flecking her with viscous extraterrestrial spittle. When Mrs. Hayden just blanched by way of reply, her eyes bulging, Joan took him to the kitchen, poured them both a glass of milk, and served up a platter of her mother’s homemade chocolate chip cookies. They chatted for fifteen minutes—innocuous gossip about schoolmates and teachers—before Tham took his leave. On his way out, he extended his talons to Joan’s father (predictably, Mr. Hayden refused to shake) and nodded to her mother. He probably would have smiled if he could have.
“I’m spending the night with Nancy,” Joan said, escorting Tham out to the porch, where she kissed him good night.
His kisses were really slobbery, she told me later, and his bony frills posed a considerable challenge. Plus, he ate the cookies by sucking them down whole and he slurped his milk.
Otherwise, Tham was pretty close to perfect.
Mr. Hayden showed up at our front door first thing in the morning, demanding that his daughter come home. My father invited him in and left the two of them alone to talk things out, but talking soon led to bellowing and bellowing to the unmistakable sound of a blow. When my father walked back into the room, Joan had one hand to her cheek, but she wasn’t crying. She told me later that she was done crying over that man, and as it turned out she was, too. My father quietly suggested that Mr. Hayden might want to go home. Joan was welcome to stay with us until everyone had calmed down, he said.
Mr. Hayden swallowed, but he didn’t raise his voice. Mr. Hayden wasn’t much more than a bully, and bullies are generally hollow at heart, I think, terrified that the world won’t bend to their will. My father certainly wasn’t bending. He simply opened the door for Mr. Hayden, who stepped outside. He turned back at the top of the porch steps, seething with humiliation and resentment. His face was white with fury, his fists clenched impotently at his sides.
“I’ll have the police here, Dave,” he said. “I’ll have my daughter home.”
“When they arrive I’ll be sure to show them that bruise on her face,” my father said. “Now get off my porch.”
Mr. Hayden walked down the steps and across the yard without looking back. The police never came, though, which is how Joan ended up spending the weekend with us. Come Monday, the bruise had faded to a dull yellow. You had to look close to know it was there at all, and a little blush took care of that. We walked to school together in the bright October morning, chatting amiably about homework and gossiping about the girls at our lunch table. The question of when she would go home did come up in passing (“Never,” she said, and she never did). The question of Tham did not.
When the bell rang for first period—we’d moved on to “Goblin Market”—Joan merely smiled at him as she slipped into her desk, and I let myself believe that the “boyfriend” nonsense had passed. Come lunch, I learned that I was wrong.
Joan collected her food and bypassed our table without a word. As she marched toward the corner where the aliens ate, the room gradually grew silent. By the time Tham scooted over to make a place for her at his table, the only sound was the occasional clank of a pot in the kitchen—and then even that stopped, as the staff gathered at the serving window, jaws agape. Joan pulled the whole thing off beautifully, I have to give her that. She never let on that she noticed the silence or the eyes upon her. She just smiled up at Tham and began to eat.
When the final bell rang that afternoon and I walked out to the picnic tables, Joan was waiting. So was Tham. We walked home in companionable silence. Tham carried Joan’s books, and shortened his stride periodically so that we could keep up. I half expected to see Johnny’s mutilated car idling at some intersection along the way, but if he was there, he hid himself well.
When we reached the house, Joan offered Tham a glass of my mother’s lemonade—we’d been neighbors and best friends for so long that she’d practically become a sister, helping herself to whatever she wanted (a privilege I was denied at the Haydens’). Tham declined—
“Thankth, but I thould go,” he said.
—and Joan kissed him good-bye right there on the front porch. She was on the front porch, anyway. He stood below, to bring their faces into relative proximity. Then he was gone, striding off down the sidewalk while Joan mopped the alien drool off her face with a kitchen towel. Joan’s mom watched from her kitchen window. My mom watched, too. I caught the telltale twitch of the living-room curtain from the corner of my eye. But she didn’t say a word when we came in, just smiled and offered us some leftover lemon meringue pie.
Joan and I were puzzling over algebra problems in my room when the phone rang. My mom stuck her head in the door.
“Joan, your mother wants to speak with you.”
“I don’t have anything to say to her.”
“Joan, please, you should—”
Joan looked up. When she spoke she was neither angry nor rude, just matter of fact in a way that brooked no argument. “I’m sorry. Mrs. Miller. We don’t have anything to say to each other now. If you want me to leave—”
“Of course, I don’t want you to leave. You’re always welcome here, Joan.”
Mom gave me a look of mute appeal. But what could I do?
And then Joan said, “Thank you, Mrs. Miller,” and turned back to her homework.
But she couldn’t stay. We all knew that. Sooner or later—probably sooner—Mr. Hayden really would call the police, and in those days there weren’t a lot of legal avenues open to a sixteen-year-old girl in conflict with her parents—even if that conflict had culminated in physical abuse. There was much to love about 1955, but like our own or any era, it was anything but perfect. My parents really would have welcomed Joan into our home for the long term. I believe that. But the forces arrayed against them were formidable.
That’s what my father said when he came up to my room before dinner.
So I wasn’t entirely surprised when Joan didn’t come back to my house after school the next day. The problem was, she didn’t go home either.
The next day Joan went to Bug Town.
She continued to come to school for a few more days, but she became increasingly distant. She no longer turned in homework, and in class she spent most of her time gazing off into the middle distance, staring at things none of us could see. By the end of the week, she was barely speaking at all. But I don’t think I realized how entirely lost to us she had become until I gathered my courage to walk across the lunchroom myself on Friday afternoon. I understood then what strength and courage that must have taken on her part. My footsteps echoed in the silence. I could feel the combined gaze of my peers like a leaden cloak upon my shoulders.
The aliens scooted aside so that I could set my tray down across from her.
“Hi, Joan,” I said.
She looked up at me and smiled, and I recognized the smile. It was her old, familiar, halfway crooked smile. “Hey, Nance,” she said as she might have said if we’d passed in the hall or she’d picked up the phone to find me on the line. It was that natural and spontaneous, and for a moment, looking at her, I felt like nothing had changed. I think that was the most surprising thing. I expected her to be utterly transformed, tuned to a different wavelength, catching strange. And while there was plenty of that there, she was also just Joan, the Joan I loved and remembered, and I missed her.
“When are you coming home, Joan?”
I didn’t want to be rude, so I glanced nervously at the towering alien kids sitting around us, patiently sucking down the school’s indifferent fish sticks and fries, before I leaned forward to whisper, as if they wouldn’t hear, “But, Joan, they’re aliens!”
Joan surveyed the lunchroom. She looked at Luke Jackson, the washed-up jock who’d cared more about booze than he’d cared about her. She looked at Jimmy Ford, who, like her father, had been a bit free with his fists. And if Johnny Fabriano had been there, she would have looked at him, too, I’m sure. She looked at them both, and then she turned back to me with a Mona Lisa smile and said, “No worries, Nance. I’m used to it.”
I looked down at my own tray of soggy fish sticks and fries. Joan reached out and put her hand over mine where it lay upon the table. “Bug Town is beautiful, Nance,” she said, and a wave of sorrow washed through me. “Come with me,” she said. “We can be free.”
But she was wrong about that. Mostly, anyway.
Johnny showed up at my doorstep Saturday around six. I heard the unmistakable rumble of the Merc’s engine as he pulled up to the curb, and when my father—over my objections—sent me to the door to meet him, I saw the car for myself. It might have been a convertible fresh off the assembly line, that’s how neatly the thing had been done, but the car had been mutilated all the same. Shorn of its roof, with its lavender dash laid bare to the October sky and those ridiculous flames licking at the hood and fenders, it had been exposed as a broken toy, the empty vanity of a man who was more boy than man. He didn’t even measure up to the title Mr. Hayden had ascribed him. Johnny Fabriano was no cheap hood. No, Johnny Fabriano was a selfish child whose experience of the world didn’t extend much beyond Red’s Billiards Parlor, and as he walked up the sidewalk to meet me, he seemed every bit as maimed as his car, stripped of whatever aura of menace he had once possessed, like a kid playing dress up in his brother’s leather jacket and motorcycle boots—a kid who hadn’t slept in a week, pale and tired (drawn, my mother would have said) with his trademark Duck’s Ass in disarray.
“How’s your mother?” I asked, before he could even start up the stairs.
“Yeah. You know your mother. You told Joan about her. How’s she doing?”
Johnny hesitated. “She’s fine,” he said. “I—”
“You what? Hold her hand when she’s hurting? Buy her medicine? What?”
Johnny didn’t reply.
I sat down on the top step. “I don’t doubt that you live with your mother, but I figure the caretaking probably goes in the other direction. She probably gives you spending money. After all, you can’t make that much shooting pool.” I leaned forward, crossing my arms around my knees. “This is your fault, Johnny. Joan told me what happened in the car.”
“Nothing happened,” he said. “We were just sitting there talking, and this monster, I don’t even know where he comes from, he’s just there all of a sudden, and he tears the lid right off the top of my car like that.”
“The monster’s name is Sam.”
“I don’t care what his name is. He’s a bug, isn’t he?” Johnny shrugged. “Maybe he was jealous, or something. Who knows what bugs think. I tried to save her, Nance. I came at him with a tire iron, but he was too quick. He just snatched her up and carried her off into the night.”
And maybe he believed this. Maybe he thought he was innocent, courageous, whatever. Maybe he’d convinced himself that his lie was true. People do it all the time. People want to be blameless. People want to be brave.
Still, I couldn’t help laughing—a bitter, joyless laugh. “Not the way I heard it, Johnny. You’re lucky he didn’t wrap that tire iron around your neck.” I stood, brushing off my skirt. “This is your fault. You’re the one that tried to rape her.” He rocked back a little at that, like he’d taken a punch. “You’re lucky he didn’t kill you. I wish he had. I don’t have anything else to say to you.”
I was halfway to the door, when he said, “I’m going to Bug Town, Nancy. I’m going to go get her.”
I kept my back to him. “Let Mr. Hayden handle it.”
Johnny snorted. “That old bastard’s not going to do anything.”
He was right, of course. Mr. Hayden was done with Joan. She’d spent a week away from home by then—nights a man of his mind could interpret in only one way. As far as he was concerned, Joan had sacrificed her virtue—and when it came to women, virtue was all that mattered. Joan had shamed him, and if there was anything Frank Hayden would not abide, it was being shamed. She might as well have been dead.
“And what are you going to do with her, bring her home?”
“No, Nancy,” he said. “You are.”
And God help me, I turned around.
I missed her, that’s all. She’d been my closest friend—my only real friend—for almost a decade, and I didn’t know how I was going to go on without her. Aside from my parents, Joan was the only person I had ever loved. And so, without even talking to my father, I followed Johnny Fabriano down the walk to his mangled car. I went to Bug Town with good intentions. I went with love in my heart. And that was our undoing.
Passing through the outskirts of Bug Town was like passing through any other dying neighborhood. Worse maybe. A few human families lingered, but most of the houses stood untenanted, their paint peeling, weathered For Sale signs jutting up from their unkempt lawns. But as we drove on, the signs dwindled and we began to see evidence of renovations in progress—skeletal networks of scaffolding, stacks of lumber and cinderblock in dusty lawns. Though still recognizably human, the houses troubled the eye. At first glance, you couldn’t quite say why. At second, you realized that everything was subtly out of proportion. The lintels of the doors had been jacked up to accommodate seven-foot frames, the rise of each porch stair modified to reflect a lengthier alien stride. Even the angles were almost imperceptibly—disturbingly—out of true. The houses seemed to lean toward the street with an all but sentient vigilance.
We began to see dusky yellow ground cover that you might have mistaken for knee-high weeds had each meaty stalk not sprung to alertness as we passed, and turned watchfully to the street. Pale, violet shrubs choked out the familiar autumnal trees, their sinuous branches drifting like seaweed in the still air. Squat, plump cylinders of washed-out orange quickened with breath. Aliens began to appear, striding down sidewalks or rocking in the shade of front porches as the October evening set in. They turned their heads to watch us as we crept by.
With each passing block, the streets became increasingly unearthly. Entire homes had been buried under thick, undulating vines, succulent and smooth. They coiled around windows and doors, and slithered out across the lawns to envelop street signs and lampposts. Fleshy, tentacled trees—I have no other word—shouldered up to the sidewalk and intertwined their limbs in a dense, rippling canopy that blocked out the sky. And in that swimming underwater dim, everything pulsed with soft colors—pinks and pale yellows and blues—as if a single heartbeat throbbed in every living molecule. And everything smelled ripe and rich as gardenias just before they go to rot. And everything sang.
I sometimes hear it still, that soft, arrhythmic music, ethereal, and eerie as the tones of a theremin. It got under my skin somehow. It got inside my head, like an itch I couldn’t reach to scratch. There was something beautiful about it, and something peaceful, and something utterly cruel. If you listened to it too long, I thought, you might never want to hear anything else again. I wondered if this was what Joan meant when she told me that we could be free, because it didn’t sound like freedom to me. It sounded like the worst kind of bondage. It sounded like slavery.
“How come it didn’t get you, too?” I asked.
Johnny shook his head. “I turned on the radio. I kept my eyes on the road.”
I reached over and switched on the radio, turned it up loud, so I couldn’t hear that music chiming in my head.
“How are we going to find her?”
“I have no idea,” he said.
But in the end it didn’t matter. She found us.
She was waiting on the porch of a house—or what had been a house—midway down the next street over. She stood tall and unafraid at the top step, the one unmoving point in that undulant landscape, her face softly illumined by the slow-pulsing colors. Her hair hung loose around her shoulders, and those succulent vines twined around her calves, like snakes tasting of the air. She looked serene, like a goddess or a saint, indifferent to mere human affairs. Yet she smiled when the Merc coasted to a stop at the curb. She smiled when she saw me, and the smile was her old smile, welcoming and warm and faintly mischievous. Just looking at it, I felt a surge of hope that she might yet be saved.
Then Johnny silenced the radio.
That strange, cruel music rang once again inside my head.
“Go get her, Nancy,” he said, and when I didn’t move, too mesmerized by the terrible beauty of Bug Town, he reached past me to the glove box and took out a revolver. I gasped—I’d never seen one, not in real life—and I thought once again that he was nothing but a fraud, a child playacting at something he could never be. But the next thing he did made me realize that it was infinitely worse than that. He shoved the muzzle of the gun into my ribs, hissing, “The fucking bug can’t have her. Not after what he did to my car,” and I saw that Johnny Fabriano was crazy.
Maybe he always had been. Or maybe it was the mutilation of his car that drove him to it—the humiliation of the thing, the exposure of his cowardice, and the consequent fear, jealousy, and fury. Or maybe it was Bug Town itself. Maybe it affected different people in different ways. I can’t know for sure. But when he dug the business end of the pistol into my ribs for the second time, I stepped out of the car, and started up the walk.
It was the single most terrifying moment of my life. The fleshy yellow stalks of grass bent their attention upon me, and I saw that each one terminated in a black unblinking eye. The snaky vines coiled around my ankles. I felt the gentle sussurance of the tentacled trees upon my face.
The car door slammed as Johnny scooted out to follow me. When I looked back, he was maybe five feet behind me, pacing me, the pistol extended in one shaking hand. His face was strained and pale, and his eyes were terrified, and as that alien music sang out inside my head, I felt the full peril of the moment bear down upon us all.
Then Joan started down the stairs. We met halfway down the walk, embraced, and stepped away.
“How did you know we were coming?” I asked.
“The music,” she said. “Everything sings, and everything speaks. We all knew you were coming. Don’t you feel it?”
And I did. It was like she’d flipped a switch at the base of my brain. My nerve endings shot out the tips of my fingers, all the way to the limits of Bug Town, where those first stalks of yellow grass sprang up from the October earth. A torrent of unfiltered imagery swept me under. I caught flashes of aliens nailing up studs in those half-renovated houses, of aliens sweeping off porches and taking dinner out of the oven and changing the oil in their cars, of aliens—of Eloieth!—bending to their homework and tossing frisbees in the dusk. Panic seized me. For a single flailing moment, I thought I would drown, and then—
“Breathe, Nancy,” Joan said.
—I got it. It was a matter of focusing the attention, of surfing the wave—and once I mastered it, I came crashing back into my own moment with a new 360° clarity. I saw Johnny at my back, brandishing his pistol, saw Joan smiling before me, saw Tham descending the porch steps behind her. He strode down the walk to stand at her shoulder. The central artery that clove his skull pulsed with color, pink and blue and yellow, each in turn. “Hello, Nanthy,” he said.
“Hi, Sam,” I said. “I came to see if Joan wanted to come home.”
“Thath up to Joan.”
Joan didn’t even hesitate. “No, Nancy,” she said. “This is my home now. I’m free here.”
And what I saw then was the most terrible thing of all: Joan had not been seduced by the aliens. She had chosen them.
Chosen them. Bug Town might have been catching strange, but our teenage neighbors from outer space had not ensnared her. The era itself had induced her to seek another path. I understand that now. The ’50s weren’t an ideal time to be a woman (has there ever been one?). Factor in an abusive father and an oppressive religion, and lots of alternatives might seem preferable. She had made a choice when she’d taken Tham home and introduced him as her boyfriend, when she’d allowed him to walk her back to my house from school, when she’d kissed him good-bye there on my porch. She had chosen Bug Town, and given her particular set of circumstances who wouldn’t have? In striving to escape everything her father represented, she’d run straight into the teeth of a decade that was almost as bad.
Wasn’t Bug Town a better option? Wasn’t Tham a better man? Who else would have left her to decide her own fate? Not even my father, and he was the most loving man I’ve ever known. He could see only one path for Joan in the end, and that was to return her to her father’s keeping.
“Stay with me,” Joan said.
“We would welcome you, Nanthy,” Tham said. “Come with uth. Everyone ith welcome.” Then, looking at, Johnny: “Put athide your weapon. Join uth.”
“Never,” Johnny said.
Oh, I was tempted. The world had little use for a plain girl like me, even if she did make good grades. What future lay before me? A career as a nurse or a teacher? Or, God help me, a homemaker, a fate worse than death?
But there was that music in my skull, that maddening itch that I could not scratch, that flood of images to be processed. Maybe I’d have gotten used to it in time. I don’t know. But in that moment I could not abide that sentient, serpentine world, endlessly interconnected. I was me. I was Nancy and no one else and didn’t want to be. I would face whatever was to come alone, no matter the cost.
I was free.
“I can’t, Joan,” I said.
She nodded. “I’ll miss you,” she said, reaching out to squeeze my hands.
I never got a chance to reply.
“You can’t have her!” Johnny screamed. I staggered away from her, tapping into that network one last time. I saw everything that followed with that same 360° clarity, languorous and slow. I saw it all. Saw Johnny swing the gun toward Tham, his hands still shaking. Saw his finger white upon the trigger, saw the hammer fall, and the cylinder turn in its casing. I heard the concussion of the shot.
Tham lifted his hand too late. Joan had already hurled herself in front of him. She took the bullet in the stomach. I saw that too. Saw the force of it carry her backward. Saw the blood. There was so much blood.
Tham caught her in one arm. In the same instant, the ropy artery that wound down between his eyes flared red, and a bolt of crimson light erupted from the outstretched talons of his other hand. Johnny never had a chance. A burst of flame engulfed him. The stench of charred flesh filled the air. His blasted bones tumbled to the ground.
Then time kicked back into gear.
Tham had already swung Joan up into his arms. He cradled her like a man carrying his bride across the threshold. “Lath chanth, Nanthy,” he said.
I shook my head and stumbled backward toward the car. Tham carried Joan up the porch stairs and through the door of the slithery, vine-grown house. I never saw either one of them again.
The rest of that night is hazy in my memory. I stumbled back to the Merc, I know that, and scrambled across the bench to the wheel. Johnny’d left the key in the ignition, and when I twisted it, the engine roared to life. Johnny—or more likely the Brookton gearhead he’d won the car from—must have modified the engine, because I barely touched the gas and the car lunged forward, like a Doberman breaking its chain.
I nearly lost control on the first corner. On the second one, I did. The car veered across the oncoming lane and careened over the sidewalk. I can still see the fleshy tree it struck. It was stouter than it looked, that tree. The hood of the car folded up like an accordion when I smashed into it. The steering wheel hurtled up to meet me. I remember nothing of the blackness that followed.
When I woke, Bug Town was dying. The slithery vines lashed around as if in agony, and the tentacled trees had begun to droop. When I crawled out of the car, the stalky yellow grass barely turned to look at me. And in the slow, dimming pulse of colors, I could see that their shark-black eyes had begun to film over.
As for the music, it had died away altogether. There was a profound relief in the silence, and a sadness, too, I guess, though the sadness wouldn’t really hit until I understood fully the magnitude of our loss. Joan was gone—maybe dead—and the aliens had disappeared. The high school football team’s run at the state title had been derailed. The lunchroom seemed strangely empty.
That was later, of course. In the moment, I gave this no thought at all. My brow was tacky with blood, and my head felt as if someone had split it with an ax. It was all I could do to lurch off toward home. I made it maybe half a block before I collapsed in the street. I was still there when the police found me the next morning.
I spent the next night in the hospital, and the morning after that I really was home, headachy and exhausted. My parents couldn’t seem to decide whether to baby me or scold me, so they did both by turns, but the babying predominated. Privately, my father even told me that I’d acquitted myself admirably, though I couldn’t see much to admire about my complicity, however unintended, in Johnny Fabriano’s madness and all the damage it had wrought.
Good intentions, right?
A few days later I felt well enough to go back to school. Everyone was bursting with questions—for a week or so, I was suddenly the most popular girl at Milledgeville High—but Chatty Cathy had fallen silent at last. My grades plummeted that semester. I groped through a fog of guilt and sorrow. The solicitous looks of my teachers were almost unbearable. The last thing I wanted was kindness. I thought of almost nothing but Joan as I had seen her last, cradled in Tham’s arms, those strange lights playing on her face. And the blood. So much blood.
I made a comeback in the spring. The fog began to lift, my grades to improve. But Bug Town never recovered. I suppose the bank wrote off the unpaid mortgages. The neighborhood itself fell into ruin.
My father drove me through it—at my insistence and over my mother’s objections—a week or so after I went back to school. The place was no longer catching strange. It was hard to believe it ever had been. The yellow stalks of grass lay wilted on the earth, and the ropy vines had withered, leaving houses bearded in brown streamers. In places, the streets were virtually impassable. The meaty trees had begun to collapse. We wound through them, crushing limp tentacles beneath our tires. We slipped in silence by the wreckage of Johnny’s treasured Merc, its nose crumpled, adding to the indignity Tham had already inflicted upon it. I guess the police must have towed it out of there eventually. I never heard. I did hear that all they ever found of Johnny was his bones. His funeral was sparsely attended. I was there. His mother—though she didn’t speak to me—looked perfectly healthy.
In retrospect, I suppose that the aliens must have opened some kind of portal from their home world, and that the things that grew there were seeping slowly out into ours. People don’t talk about it much these days, but occasionally you’ll hear someone speculate that Bug Town was the vanguard of a slow invasion and that its transformation presaged that of the entire planet—that Johnny was a hero who’d saved humanity from the ascension of triumphant alien overlords.
But Johnny Fabriano was no hero. I have no doubt that the aliens were fundamentally benign. I think they’d come to Milledgeville in search of a better life, that in transforming Bug Town they were simply making the neighborhood feel a little more like home. Maybe I’m naïve, but I just can’t bring myself to believe that you shop at the A&P, picnic in the park, and send your kids to the local high school when you are bent on genocide. If they’d had any interest in crushing us they could have done so without a second thought. They could open doorways between stars, tear the roofs off cars barehanded, and shoot death rays out of their fingers. Why mess around by taking out mortgages and renovating old houses?
In the end, I believe, they retreated in the face of Johnny’s madness. When they slammed that interstellar doorway behind them, they choked off the source of all that catching strange and Bug Town died.
I miss them. Miss Eloieth and Theven and all the rest of them. I miss Tham, whose good intentions came to naught in the end. I miss Joan most of all. Not a day passes that I don’t wonder what happened to her.
I like to think they saved her. I like to think she’s free.
A winner of both the Shirley Jackson Award and the International Horror Guild Award, Dale Bailey is the author of The End of the End of Everything: Stories and The Subterranean Season, both out in 2015, as well as The Fallen, House of Bones, Sleeping Policemen (with Jack Slay, Jr.), and The Resurrection Man's Legacy and Other Stories. His work has twice been a finalist for the Nebula Award and once for the Bram Stoker Award, and has been adapted for Showtime Television's Masters of Horror. He lives in North Carolina with his family.