My dad was a conspiracy theorist. I watched him spend his whole life being suspicious of everyone and everything. He believed that there were all kinds of things that the government was keeping from us. He was a strong believer in UFOs.
"I'm telling you son, they're out there." He spoke through a disgusting mouthful of pancakes, and I watched as syrup dripped from his chin and fell on the convenient little landing-pad that his pop-belly created, clad in a tight white undershirt.
"Yeah, I know." I handed him a paper-towel, which he ignored, so I dropped it next to his plate. "UFO stands for unidentified flying object. And yes, Dad, they do exist. Do you know what this is?" I reached into a drawer and pulled out a potato masher, trusting that his nonexistent culinary skills would render him incapable of recognizing it.
When he shook his head I threw it across to room. "Look, there's one now."
He stared hard at me for a long moment and then burst into unexpected laughter. "You really are your mother's son."
I smiled as I began moving dishes from - everywhere - to the sink. "Allegedly."
I had expected another laugh, so I looked up when it got quiet. He was staring out of the window, his face sober, eyes sad. I was momentarily stuck by how old he looked. His hair was more white now, than brown. His wrinkled cheeks were scruffy with grayish stubble. Surrounded by his clutter, he looked tired.
"What is it Dad?" I walked over and put a hand on his shoulder, my eyes followed his through the window to where mom's herb garden had once flourished, and was now overgrown and neglected, like this house, like this man. It was right for me to come home for the summer.
"I miss her." He tried to shake it off as he picked up his fork again. "These are good son."
"Thanks." I squeezed his shoulder before going to fill my own plate. "I miss her too."
"While you're over there, grab me a beer will you?"
"No, Dad! It's not even eight in the morning!"
"A man has a right to drink his own beer in his own house on his own schedule."
I opened the refrigerator, shaking my head and grinning despite my annoyance. My eyes focused on the contents of the refrigerator long enough to notice a long gray hand reaching for my gut. I watched a long finger poke through my shirt and into my navel.
I woke up screaming.
Stinky Guy nudges me in the shoulder and mutters something drowsily about keeping it down because the Grey-skins are coming to eat my guts.
I shove him back harder, and mutter something about hating his.
I'm shaking and sweaty. I hate those kinds of dreams. We all have them; it's part of life on Earth.
If you can really call the nightmare that we as survivors are living a life.
My old man had been right about aliens, but wrong about the government knowing about them. No one had seen this coming.
There had been thousands, maybe even a million ships. They weren't flying saucers, or X-Wing fighters like on Star Wars, they weren't even close to resembling the U.S.S. Enterprise. No, these space-ships look more like a tulip bulbs; sort of natural and organic. Really freaking creepy.
There were filled with short, grey-skinned creatures that look a lot like us. Except that they have these huge violet eyes and long skinny fingers that they use to claw people in the stomach, or brain. I don't know what they do after that; I can't make myself watch.
They seem to be focused on our water sources. Most of the river beds we've come across have been dry. Most taps still work. We'd be completely screwed otherwise.
I'm with a band of survivors. We don't know each other's names. We don't want to, because Weeping Widow used to be with a group who used names. She'd only been with them a few days, and not everyone knew her. One of the guys got caught and Brain-poked and then the Grey-Skins tracked down everyone, including her husband and... did whatever it is that they do with them. It doesn't matter; the end result is always the same. They're dead. She has this theory that they have some sort of mind-reading ability, and that they can track us down based on our association with others.
I say it's a bunch of B.S. but I'm too afraid the go against her theory. So now we're all just calling each other, "Hey you."
I've nick-named the five of them in my head. Weeping Widow is a woman in her mid-forties who looks like she maybe used to be fat, but no one is fat anymore. Her skin is loose and her eyes are usually blood-shot. Her hair is wild and blond and when we're running, it usually has stuff stuck in it. I think she used to be one of those fat and happy people. She cries for her husband almost every night.
Stinky Guy stinks. We all stink, be somehow he manages to smell worse than anyone. He might be thirty, maybe a little younger, closer to my age. He doesn't talk much, but when he does, I usually hate what he says.
Old Guy isn't really old, maybe sixty, but he's the oldest. He's bald and bossy and sort of reminds me of the bald dude from LOST. My dad loved that show. I miss my dad, and television.
Skinny Girl is sort of hot. Actually, deep down, I know that she's not even remotely hot. She's homely, with bad teeth and bulgy eyes and thin, limp, brownish hair. But every day we spend together we get closer to becoming the last man and woman on Earth and the better she looks.
Alec Baldwin looks exactly like a brown-eyed Alec Baldwin, but he doesn't sound like him and he's not funny at all. Every time he opens his mouth I'm disappointed. He talks about his kids a lot - girls named Sarah and Ashley. He talks about them with a sort of hopeful denial. It makes Weeping Widow cry and Old Guy shake his head.
Then there's me. If the rest of them have a nick-name for me I'm glad I don't know what it is. I'm pretty sure I'm twenty-five, but that all depends on what month it is. None of us knows. It's spring, anyway, so if I'm not already twenty-five, I will be soon. My hair is too long and it's black. I shave it all off whenever I get the chance because I hate how it feels when it's sticking, all greasy, to the back of my neck.
We're not a pretty bunch.
Right now I think we're somewhere in Iowa. We haven't seen any Grey-skins or their ships for a few weeks and it's freaking us out. They can't all have just disappeared.
Alec Baldwin thinks that they're lying low, trying to give the survivors a false sense of security so that we'll reveal ourselves.
I think he might be right, which is why we haven't moved from this crappy cellar under this run down farm-house in the middle of nowhere for quite a few days. I'm so tired of potatoes.
"The canteens are all empty." I'm still clammy from my dream and I'm searching for a drink of water. Skinny Girl is whispering to me over the snores of Old Guy.
"Guess I'll have to go up then." I'm draping the straps of all of our water holders over my head and shoulders. I'm so freaking thirsty.
"Now?" She's hissing and she's going to wake people up. "In the middle of the night?"
"Yeah." I push open the door of the cellar a crack and I listen to the sounds of the night. I need to get out there, I'm feeling claustrophobic.
"Wait until morning, one of us can go with you." She's stepping over Weeping Widow and coming to my side.
"It'll be fine. I'll be right back."
"No." She puts one of her skinny hands on my bare shoulder. I turn to face her and she's biting her lip. It's almost sexy, but not quite. "I don't want you to go."
I'm sort of touched that she's so worried about me. "I'll be fine." I say again and I try to smile.
"Leave a couple of them behind, just in case." She's not biting her lip anymore, and the hand on my shoulder starts to bug me. I erase the smile. She's not worried about me at all. She's worried about the water carriers that we treasure so much. She's afraid that if I die, they won't have a way to transport water. It's not personal, I tell myself, its survival. I unhook a couple of the empty canteens and shove them at her. Then I climb up, into the night.
It's almost warm and almost quiet. There's no moon, so I pause and crouch next to the house to let my eyes adjust. I look to the sky first. There is no sign of any flying tulip bulbs, no ringing, scraping sound. The coast seems to be clear.
I stay bent over as I move around the house toward the front door. I'm trying to keep all of the canteens and water bottles from clinking together as they swing around me. I'm not having much luck.
Stinky Guy and Alec Baldwin are the only people who've been inside this house. They found nine cans of tuna, three cans of chili, six cans of peaches, a large tub of Jiffy peanut butter, and an expired can of baked beans which Old Guy elected to eat anyway. When he didn't die the next day, I poked at my raw potato and wished I would have asked him to share.
The front porch steps squeak as I mount them. I know it's not very loud, but the silence is ringing around me and even my breath seems to be screaming in my ears. There's a light breeze. I jump and all the little hairs on the back of my neck stand up. I decide to shave them off with the rest of my oily hair if I can find a pair of buzzers inside. I want a shower almost as much as I want a drink.
There's a screen door that is torn and partly off its hinges. I try not to picture someone doing that out of desperation to escape the horror that found its way into their home.
The real door is slightly ajar. I figure that Stinky Guy left it that way on purpose. He's a stickler for details, for leaving things the way we find them. I push it open the rest of the way and pause in the doorway to listen. The silence is deafening.
My head might just swivel clear off because I can't stop looking back over my shoulder toward the porch. Iowa, or wherever we actually are, is really flat. It's nice to be able to see for miles, but it also makes me feel exposed. I feel like someone is watching me. I shake it off and step inside.
Sometimes these places smell like corpses, so I brace myself. This one smells like people; like fabric softener, and dust, and Mr. Clean, and desertion. There's a lump in my throat that I can't explain as I look around. Sometimes I forget what civilization looks like.
I don't look into any of the picture frames on the entry wall. I glance up the stairs and see nothing but darkness and a pair of woman's tennis shoes. Stinky Guy told me that at night the Grey-skin's eyes glow. I've never seen one at night before. Since the first day, I've always hid like crazy at night. That part totally creeps me out.
I don't know why I'm doing this now. Maybe I don't care anymore. Maybe I'm tired of running and hiding, of being dirty and hungry and scared. Maybe I want one of them to find me and finish it.
I catch movement out of the corner of my eye and suppress the urge to scream like Skinny Girl. A gust of wind probably moved that coat hanging up in the next room. I try to get my breathing back to normal. When faced with the brief possibility of being found, I decide that no, I really don't want to be finished.
With shaking hands I move quietly to the next room with the twitchy coat. It's the kitchen. It has a lot of windows and it opens to the family room. I scan quickly for grey shadows or glowing eyes. I'm pretty sure they can hear my deafening heart beat down in the cellar. I'm regretting my decision to come out at night and I'm resenting my body for its thirst. I snatch a knife up off the counter, ignoring my brain as it tries to remind me that weapons are useless on Grey-skins. I feel better with some sort of weapon. If all else fails, I can stab myself. I stick the knife in my boot. It always looked cool when they did that in movies, but it sort of hurts if you have any loose skin around your ankle.
The kitchen sink has dirty dishes in it. Actually, they aren't really dirty anymore since bugs have taken care of the grim, but they're sort of dusty and streaky where either Alec Baldwin or Stinky Guy ran water over them. I unhook the canteens from my shoulder one by one, always checking the windows for movement outside. I feel closed in and vulnerable and sort of sick to my stomach. I wish I'd taken Skinny Girl's advice and waited until morning, but I'm here now, so I hurry to get the job done.
I turn the water on and the sound is so delicious that I just stick my head down and drink strait from the faucet. I think I hear something, so I stand up straight and hit my cheek on the nozzle on the way up. It hurts.
I listen intensely, so intensely that I imagine being able to hear all sorts of things. After a long moment I'm satisfied that there's no real sounds, so I go back to the task at hand.
The running water keeps making me think that I'm hearing things. I have to keep reminding myself that the whistling sound is just water running through the pipes, the feeling that I'm not alone in the house is only because I'm not used to being alone anymore, the thump is just water escaping from the lip of the bottle in my trembling hand, and the - okay no - now that thump definitely had nothing to do with me. I switch off the faucet halfway through the fourth fill to listen.
I can't explain what I hear, because it's nothing. It's silence. Yet, the house doesn't sound empty. My heart is creeping toward my throat and I'm not even trying not to gasp anymore. I wait another minute, unable to move, and I'm rewarded with a second sound. There's a creak in the steps.
I'm pretty sure that if there was anything in my stomach I would be throwing it up right now.
I really want to believe its Skinny Girl deciding to come in after me, or that the house is just old and settling, or that... I don't know - it's a squirrel. The hairs on the back of my neck are telling me it's none of those things. They're telling me to get the freaking knife out of my boot. I bend down without taking my eyes off the doorway leading back to the stairs.
Now there's a thump directly above my head. Does that mean there are two of them? Or does that mean that the one on the stairs has gone up? How am I supposed to concentrate on anything when I feel like I'm about to wet my pants?
I grip the knife tightly in my right hand and I forget to tell my left one to let go of the water bottle. I remember the movie Signs where all they had to do to get rid of the aliens was dump water on them. I want to laugh at myself. I really want to cry.
I always hated it in horror movies when the helpless victim would move toward the scary noises. I always thought; what an idiot! RUN! Now here I was, being the idiot. Running seemed cheap though, and it would only lead them to the others. So I was - what? - going to sacrifice myself to save them? Who knew I was a hero? It would so not be heroic to wet my pants right now.
I'm standing right in the doorway now. As soon as I take a step forward I'll be able to see the stairs again... and whatever is on the stairs will be able to see me. I take a deep, sort of pathetically rasping, breath, and step forward.
The stairwell is empty.
I want to breathe a sigh of relief, but I know I won't be satisfied until I face what is up there. I mount the first step on legs of rubber. After a pause, and moment's consideration, I decide to take the rest of the stairs at a run. My only chance is to catch the - whatever- by surprise. I grip the knife and take the rest of the steps at a run.
I was almost one hundred percent positive that the being downstairs was human. I doubted that a Grey-skin patrolling this area would have access or a need for a temperature monitoring device. My reading said an even ninety-eight point seven, not the ninety-two point three that I had come to fear. I was pretty certain as soon as I entered the premises and heard the water running. I couldn't be sure though, the Grey-skins had become very good and tricking us. The rules were that you prepared yourself, and then made them come to you. It was important to maintain the upper hand.
I could hear the - whatever - creaking their way toward the stairs. I planted myself opposite the doorway in the room at the top. I readied my weapon, planted my feet, and waited.
It was completely silent for one long moment, and then, suddenly, there was a pounding of feet and a warrior-like yell.
The poor guy.
He stormed into the room holding a knife and looking like death. His face was pale, hands shaking, but in his eyes there was a look of determination which I admired. The look of shock on his face was almost laughable as he spotted me. He stopped in the doorway, looking bewildered.
I studied him carefully. He was delicious. He was wearing a pair of tattered jeans without a shirt. His hair was black and long enough to curl around his ears. His eyes were vivid blue, and widened in shock at the moment. He was beautiful. His stomach... his arms... I mentally shook myself. I had a job to do. One of my hands kept my gun trained on him while the other reached down to switch on my recording device.
"Drop your weapon." I'd been waiting ten months to say that to someone, or something. I sounded so cool.
His expression, his whole body, stayed frozen, but he let the knife fall from his hand. It clattered on the floor, making us both jump.
"State your name for the record." I continued to hold my gun on him, and sort of felt bad about it. This guy obviously wasn't part of a resistance. He was just an uninformed Runner.
He opened his full mouth a few times, but nothing came out.
"I am G.I.A. Agent Cynthia Strutz and I just asked you to state your name." Wow. I sounded tough.
His mouth did a couple more dying fish movements before he finally managed an answer. "Jack Harper Matthews... I think."
"Do you have any of the Puniceus Oculus Species, informally known as Grey-skins, in your custody or under your protection?"
"Do I what?" I was beginning to worry that once the adrenaline wore off he was going to pass out on me. He was so pale.
"Answer the question."
"No you won't answer the question? Or, no, you don't have any Peniceus Oculus with you?"
"No, I don't have any with me. Are you kidding me?"
"Have you seen or been in contact with any of the said species within the last nineteen days?"
"No." He shook his head and seemed to be coming to his senses. "I'd like to know what's going on here. Who are you?"
"I told you, G.I.A. Agent Cynthia Strutz and I still have a couple more questions for you. How long have you been in the area?"
"A couple of weeks?" He shook his head as if he were trying to wake himself from a dream. "Listen, what's going on? What is this?"
"We're patrolling to make sure the threat has been alleviated."
"Well, more like; Aliens, Destroyed."
"Well, the Galactic Intelligence Agency deemed it necessary to remove the danger. The Grey-skins couldn't be reasonable, so we terminated the core of their existence."
He raised a questioning eyebrow.
"Those of us with the ability to do so contributed to blowing up their planet. Almost three weeks ago."
He sat down right where he was and put his head in his hands.
I knew the feeling so I walked over to him, belting my gun, and I put a hand on his shoulder as I crouched before him.
"It's alright Jack." I squeezed his shoulder to make him look at me. His blue eyes were filled with moisture. He looked exhausted. "It's all over. You don't have to run anymore."
He groaned as his lips came crashing into mine. "You don't know how long I've been waiting to hear that." I lost my balance and fell into him. He didn't seem to mind. "You're the sexiest thing I've ever seen, my hero." He spoke desperately against my parting mouth. "Marry me. Right now."
I laughed as my fingers knotted in his hair to bring his face even closer. His arms wrapped around my jump-suited waist, and one ran up my back to grasp the back of my neck.
Thirteen months later, in a colony called "New New York," I did just that.