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Andy Duncan [] was born in South Carolina in September 1964. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina and worked as a journalist for the Greensboro News & Record before studying creative writing at North Carolina State University and the University of Alabama.. He previously was the senior editor of Overdrive, a magazine for truck drivers. Duncan’s short fiction, which has won the World Fantasy and Theodore Sturgeon Awards, is collected in World Fantasy Award winner Beluthahatchie and Other Stories and The Pottawatomie Giant and Other Stories. Duncan also co-edited Crossroads: Tales of the Southern Literary Fantastic with F. Brett Cox and wrote non-fiction book Alabama Curiosities: Quirky Characters, Roadside Oddities & Other Offbeat Stuff. He currently lives with his wife Sydney in Frostburg, Maryland, where they are on the English faculty of Frostburg State University.

She knocked on my front door at midday on Holly Eve, so I was in no mood to answer, in that season of tricks. An old man expects more tricks than treats in this world. I let that knocker knock on. Blim, blam! Knock, knock! It hurt my concentration, and filling old hulls with powder and shot warn’t no easy task to start with, not as palsied as my hands had got in my eightieth-odd year.

“All right, damn your eyes,” I hollered as I hitched up from the table. I knocked against it and a shaker tipped over: pepper, so I let it go. My maw wouldn’t have approved of such language as that, but we all get old doing things our maws wouldn’t approve. We can’t help it, not in this disposition, on this sphere down below.

I sidled up on the door, trying to see between the edges of the curtain and the pane, but all I saw there was the screen-filtered light of the sun, which wouldn’t set in my hollow till nearabouts three in the day. Through the curtains was a shadow-shape like the top of a person’s head, but low, like a child. Probably one of those Holton boys toting an orange coin carton with a photo of some spindleshanked African child eating hominy with its fingers. Some said those Holtons was like the Johnny Cash song, so heavenly minded they’re no earthly good.

“What you want?” I called, one hand on the dead bolt and one feeling for starving-baby quarters in my pocket.

“Mr. Nelson, right? Mr. Buck Nelson? I’d like to talk a bit, if you don’t mind. Inside or on the porch, your call.”

A female, and no child, neither. I twitched back the curtain, saw a fair pretty face under a fool hat like a sideways saucer, lips painted the same black-red as her hair. I shot the bolt and opened the wood door but kept the screen latched. When I saw her full length I felt a rush of fool vanity and was sorry I hadn’t traded my overalls for fresh that morning. Her boots reached her knees but nowhere near the hem of her tight green dress. She was a little thing, hardly up to my collarbone, but a blind man would know she was full-growed. I wondered what my hair was doing in back, and I felt one hand reach around to slick it down, without my really telling it to. Steady on, son.

“I been answering every soul else calling Buck Nelson since 1894, so I reckon I should answer you, too. What you want to talk about, Miss—?”

“Miss Hanes,” she said, “and I’m a wire reporter, stringing for Associated Press.”

“A reporter,” I repeated. My jaw tightened up. My hand reached back for the doorknob as natural as it had fussed my hair. “You must have got the wrong man,” I said.

I’d eaten biscuits bigger than her tee-ninchy pocketbook, but she reached out of it a little spiral pad that she flipped open to squint at. Looked to be full of secretary-scratch, not schoolhouse writing at all. “But you, sir, are indeed Buck Nelson, Route One, Mountain View, Missouri? Writer of a book about your travels to the Moon, and Mars, and Venus?”

By the time she fetched up at Venus her voice was muffled by the wood door I had slammed in her face. I bolted it, cursing my rusty slow reflexes. How long had it been, since fool reporters come using around? Not long enough. I limped as quick as I could to the back door, which was right quick, even at my age. It’s a small house. I shut that bolt, too, and yanked all the curtains to. I turned on the Zenith and dialed the sound up as far as it would go to drown out her blamed knocking and calling. Ever since the roof aerial blew cockeyed in the last whippoorwill storm, watching my set was like trying to read a road sign in a blizzard, but the sound blared out well enough. One of the stories was on as I settled back at the table with my shotgun hulls. I didn’t really follow those women’s stories, but I could hear Stu and Jo were having coffee again at the Hartford House and still talking about poor dead Eunice and that crazy gal what shot her because a ghost told her to. That blonde Jennifer was slap crazy, all right, but she was a looker, too, and the story hadn’t been half so interesting since she’d been packed off to the sanitarium. I was spilling powder everywhere now, what with all the racket and distraction, and hearing the story was on reminded me it was past my dinnertime anyways, and me hungry. I went into the kitchen, hooked down my grease-pan, and set it on the big burner, dug some lard out of the stand I kept in the icebox and threw that in to melt, then fisted some fresh-picked whitefish mushrooms out of their bin, rinjed them off in the sink, and rolled them in a bowl of cornmeal while I half-listened to the TV and half-listened to the city girl banging and hollering, at the back door this time. I could hear her boot heels a-thunking all hollow-like on the back porch, over the old dog bed where Teddy used to lie, where the other dog, Bo, used to try to squeeze, big as he was. She’d probably want to talk about poor old Bo, too, ask to see his grave, as if that would prove something. She had her some stick-to-it-iveness, Miss Associated Press did, I’d give her that much. Now she was sliding something under the door, I could hear it, like a field mouse gnawing its way in: a little card, like the one that Methodist preacher always leaves, only shinier. I didn’t bother to pick it up. I didn’t need nothing down there on that floor. I slid the whitefish into the hot oil without a splash. My hands had about lost their grip on gun and tool work, but in the kitchen I was as surefingered as an old woman. Well, eating didn’t mean shooting anymore, not since the power line come in, and the supermarket down the highway. Once the whitefish got to sizzling good, I didn’t hear Miss Press no more.

“This portion of Search for Tomorrow has been brought to you by…Spic and Span, the all-purpose cleaner. And by…Joy dishwashing liquid. From grease to shine in half the time, with Joy. Our story will continue in just a moment.”

I was up by times the next morning. Hadn’t kept milk cows in years. The last was Molly, she with the wet-weather horn, a funny-looking old gal but as calm and sweet as could be. But if you’ve milked cows for seventy years, it’s hard to give in and let the sun start beating you to the day. By first light I’d had my Cream of Wheat, a child’s meal I’d developed a taste for, with a little jerp of honey, and was out in the back field, bee hunting.

I had three sugar-dipped corncobs in a croker sack, and I laid one out on a hickory stump, notched one into the top of a fencepost, and set the third atop the boulder at the start of the path that drops down to the creek, past the old lick-log where the salt still keeps the grass from growing. Then I settled down on an old milkstool to wait. I gave up snuff a while ago because I couldn’t taste it no more and the price got so high with taxes that I purely hated putting all that government in my mouth, but I still carry some little brushes to chew on in dipping moments, and I chewed on one while I watched those three corncobs do nothing. I’d set down where I could see all three without moving my head, just by darting my eyes from one to the other. My eyes may not see Search for Tomorrow so good anymore, even before the aerial got bent, but they still can sight a honeybee coming in to sip the bait.

The cob on the stump got the first business, but that bee just smelled around and then buzzed off straightaway, so I stayed set where I was. Same thing happened to the post cob and to the rock cob, three bees come and gone. But then a big bastard, one I could hear coming in like an airplane twenty feet away, zoomed down on the fence cob and stayed there a long time, filling his hands. He rose up all lazy-like, just like a man who’s lifted the jug too many times in a sitting, and then made one, two, three slow circles in the air, marking the position. When he flew off, I was right behind him, legging it into the woods.

Mister Big Bee led me a ways straight up the slope, toward the well of the old McQuarry place, but then he crossed the bramble patch, and by the time I had worked my way anti-goddlin around that, I had lost sight of him. So I listened for a spell, holding my breath, and heard a murmur like a branch in a direction where there warn’t no branch. Sure enough, over thataway was a big hollow oak with a bee highway a-coming and a-going through a seam in the lowest fork. Tell the truth, I wasn’t rightly on my own land anymore. The McQuarry place belonged to a bank in Cape Girardeau, if it belonged to anybody. But no one had blazed this tree yet, so my claim would be good enough for any bee hunter. I sidled around to just below the fork and notched an X where any fool could see it, even me, because I had been known to miss my own signs some days, or rummage the bureau for a sock that was already on my foot. Something about the way I’d slunk toward the hive the way I’d slunk toward the door the day before made me remember Miss Press, whom I’d plumb forgotten about. And when I turned back toward home, in the act of folding my pocketknife, there she was sitting on the lumpy leavings of the McQuarry chimney, a-kicking her feet and waving at me, just like I had wished her out of the ground. I’d have to go past her to get home, as I didn’t relish turning my back on her and heading around the mountain, down the long way to the macadam and back around. Besides, she’d just follow me anyway, the way she followed me out here. I unfolded my knife again and snatched up a walnut stick to whittle on as I stomped along to where she sat.

“Hello, Mr. Nelson,” she said. “Can we start over?”

“I ain’t a-talking to you,” I said as I passed, pointing at her with my blade. “I ain’t even a-walking with you,” I added, as she slid off the rockpile and walked along beside. “I’m taking the directedest path home, is all, and where you choose to walk is your own lookout. Fall in a hole and I’ll just keep a-going, I swear I will. I’ve done it before, left reporters in the woods to die.”

“Aw, I don’t believe you have,” she said, in a happy singsongy way. At least she was dressed for a tramp through the woods, in denim jeans and mannish boots with no heels to them, but wearing the same face-paint and fool hat, and in a red sweater that fit as close as her dress had. “But I’m not walking with you, either,” she went on. “I’m walking alone, just behind you. You can’t even see me, without turning your head. We’re both walking alone, together.”

I didn’t say nothing.

“Are we near where it landed?” she asked.

I didn’t say nothing.

“You haven’t had one of your picnics lately, have you?”

I didn’t say nothing.

“You ought to have another one.”

I didn’t say nothing.

“I’m writing a story,” she said, “about Close Encounters. You know, the new movie? With Richard Dreyfuss? He was in The Goodbye Girl, and Jaws, about the shark? Did you see those? Do you go to any movies?” Some critter we had spooked, maybe a turkey, went thrashing off through the brush, and I heard her catch her breath. “I bet you saw Deliverance,” she said.

I didn’t say nothing.

“My editor thought it’d be interesting to talk to people who really have, you know, claimed their own close encounters, to have met people from outer space. Contactees, that’s the word, right? You were one of the first contactees, weren’t you, Mr. Nelson? When was it, 1956?”

I didn’t say nothing.

“Aw, come on, Mr. Nelson. Don’t be so mean. They all talked to me out in California. Mr. Bethurum talked to me.”

I bet he did, I thought. Truman Bethurum always was a plumb fool for a skirt.

“I talked to Mr. Fry, and to Mr. King, and Mr. Owens. I talked to Mr. Angelucci.”

Orfeo Angelucci, I thought, now there was one of the world’s original liars, as bad as Adamski. “Those names don’t mean nothing to me,” I said.

“They told similar stories to yours, in the fifties and sixties. Meeting the Space Brothers, and being taken up, and shown wonders, and coming back to the Earth, with wisdom and all.”

“If you talked to all them folks,” I said, “you ought to be brim full of wisdom yourself. Full of something. Why you need to hound an old man through the woods?”

“You’re different,” she said. “You know lots of things the others don’t.”

“Lots of things, uh-huh. Like what?”

“You know how to hunt bees, don’t you?”

I snorted. “Hunt bees. You won’t never need to hunt no bees, Miss Press. Priss. You can buy your honey at the A and the P. Hell, if you don’t feel like going to the store, you could just ask, and some damn fool would bring it to you for free on a silver tray.”

“Well, thank you,” she said.

“That warn’t no compliment,” I said. “That was a clear-eyed statement of danger, like a sign saying, ‘Bridge out,’ or a label saying, ‘Poison.’ Write what you please, Miss Priss, but don’t expect me to give you none of the words. You know all the words you need already.”

“But you used to be so open about your experiences, Mr. Nelson. I’ve read that to anyone who found their way here off the highway, you’d tell about the alien Bob Solomon, and how that beam from the saucer cured your lumbago, and all that good pasture land on Mars. Why, you had all those three-day picnics, right here on your farm, for anyone who wanted to come talk about the Space Brothers. You’d even hand out little Baggies with samples of hair from your four-hundred-pound Venusian dog.”

I stopped and whirled on her, and she hopped back a step, nearly fell down. “He warn’t never no four hundred pounds,” I said. “You reporters sure do believe some stretchers. You must swallow whole eggs for practice like a snake. I’ll have you know, Miss Priss, that Bo just barely tipped three hundred and eighty-five pounds at his heaviest, and that was on the truck scales behind the Union 76 in June 1960, the day he ate all the sileage, and Clay Rector, who ran all their inspections back then, told me those scales would register the difference if you took the Rand McNally atlas out of the cab, so that figure ain’t no guesswork.” When I paused for breath, I kinda shook myself, turned away from her gaping face, and walked on. “From that day,” I said, “I put old Bo on a science diet, one I got from the Extension, and I measured his rations, and I hitched him ever day to a sledge of felled trees and boulders and such, because dogs, you know, they’re happier with a little exercise, and he settled down to around, oh, three-ten, three-twenty, and got downright frisky again. He’d romp around and change direction and jerk that sledge around, and that’s why those three boulders are a-sitting in the middle of yonder pasture today, right where he slung them out of the sledge. Four hundred pounds, my foot. You don’t know much, if that’s what you know, and that’s a fact.”

I was warmed up by the walk and the spreading day and my own strong talk, and I set a smart pace, but she loped along beside me, writing in her notebook with a silver pen that flashed as it caught the sun. “I stand corrected,” she said. “So what happened? Why’d you stop the picnics, and start running visitors off with a shotgun, and quit answering your mail?”

“You can see your own self what happened,” I said. “Woman, I got old. You’ll see what it’s like, when you get there. All the people who believed in me died, and then the ones who humored me died, and now even the ones who feel obligated to sort of tolerate me are starting to go. Bo died, and Teddy, that was my Earth-born dog, he died, and them government boys went to the Moon and said they didn’t see no mining operations or colony domes or big Space Brother dogs, or nothing else old Buck had seen up there. And in place of my story, what story did they come up with? I ask you. Dust and rocks and craters as far as you can see, and when you walk as far as that, there’s another sight of dust and rocks and craters, and so on all around till you’re back where you started, and that’s it, boys, wash your hands, that’s the Moon done. Excepting for some spots where the dust is so deep a body trying to land would just be swallowed up, sink to the bottom, and at the bottom find what? Praise Jesus, more dust, just what we needed. They didn’t see nothing that anybody would care about going to see. No floating cars, no lakes of diamonds, no topless Moon gals, just dumb dull nothing. Hell, they might as well a been in Arkansas. You at least can cast a line there, catch you a bream. Besides, my lumbago come back,” I said, easing myself down into the rocker, because we was back on my front porch by then. “It always comes back, my doctor says. Doctors plural, I should say. I’m on the third one now. The first two died on me. That’s something, ain’t it? For a man to outlive two of his own doctors?”

Her pen kept a-scratching as she wrote. She said, “Maybe Bob Solomon’s light beam is still doing you some good, even after all this time.”

“Least it didn’t do me no harm. From what all they say now about the space people, I’m lucky old Bob didn’t jam a post-hole digger up my ass and send me home with the screaming meemies and three hours of my life missing. That’s the only aliens anybody cares about nowadays, big-eyed boogers with long cold fingers in your drawers. Doctors from space. Well, if they want to take three hours of my life, they’re welcome to my last trip to the urologist. I reckon it was right at three hours, and I wish them joy of it.”

“Not so,” she said. “What about Star Wars? It’s already made more money than any other movie ever made, more than Gone with the Wind, more than The Sound of Music. That shows people are still interested in space, and in friendly aliens. And this new Richard Dreyfuss movie I was telling you about is based on actual UFO case files. Dr. Hynek helped with it. That’ll spark more interest in past visits to Earth.”

“I been to ever doctor in the country, seems like,” I told her, “but I don’t recall ever seeing Dr. Hynek.”

“How about Dr. Rutledge?”

“Is he the toenail man?”

She swatted me with her notebook. “Now you’re just being a pain,” she said. “Dr. Harley Rutledge, the scientist, the physicist. Over at Southeast Missouri State. That’s no piece from here. He’s been doing serious UFO research for years, right here in the Ozarks. You really ought to know him. He’s been documenting the spooklights. Like the one at Hornet, near Neosho?”

“I’ve heard tell of that light,” I told her, “but I didn’t know no scientist cared about it.”

“See?” she said, almost a squeal, like she’d opened a present, like she’d proved something. “A lot has happened since you went home and locked the door. More people care about UFOs and flying saucers and aliens today than they did in the 1950s, even. You should have you another picnic.”

Once I got started talking, I found her right easy to be with, and it was pleasant a-sitting in the sun talking friendly with a pretty gal, or with anyone. It’s true, I’d been powerful lonesome, and I had missed those picnics, all those different types of folks on the farm who wouldn’t have been brought together no other way, in no other place, by nobody else. I was prideful of them. But I was beginning to notice something funny. To begin with, Miss Priss, whose real name I’d forgot by now, had acted like someone citified and paper-educated and standoffish. Now, the longer she sat on my porch a-jawing with me, the more easeful she got, and the more country she sounded, as if she’d lived in the hollow her whole life. It sorta put me off. Was this how Mike Wallace did it on 60 Minutes, pretending to be just regular folks, until you forgot yourself, and were found out?

“Where’d you say you were from?” I asked.

“Mars,” she told me. Then she laughed. “Don’t get excited,” she said. “It’s a town in Pennsylvania, north of Pittsburgh. I’m based out of Chicago, though.” She cocked her head, pulled a frown, stuck out her bottom lip. “You didn’t look at my card,” she said. “I pushed it under your door yesterday, when you were being so all-fired rude.”

“I didn’t see it,” I said, which warn’t quite a lie because I hadn’t bothered to pick it up off the floor this morning, either. In fact, I’d plumb forgot to look for it.

“You ought to come out to Clearwater Lake tonight. Dr. Rutledge and his students will be set up all night, ready for whatever. He said I’m welcome. That means you’re welcome, too. See? You have friends in high places. They’ll be set up at the overlook, off the highway. Do you know it?”

“I know it,” I told her.

“Can you drive at night? You need me to come get you?” She blinked and chewed her lip, like a thought had just struck. “That might be difficult,” she said.

“Don’t exercise yourself,” I told her. “I reckon I still can drive as good as I ever did, and my pickup still gets the job done, too. Not that I aim to drive all that ways, just to look at the sky. I can do that right here on my porch.”

“Yes,” she said, “alone. But there’s something to be said for looking up in groups, wouldn’t you agree?”

When I didn’t say nothing, she stuck her writing-pad back in her pocketbook and stood up, dusting her butt with both hands. You’d think I never swept the porch. “I appreciate the interview, Mr. Nelson.”

“Warn’t no interview,” I told her. “We was just talking, is all.”

“I appreciate the talking, then,” she said. She set off across the yard, toward the gap in the rhododendron bushes that marked the start of the driveway. “I hope you can make it tonight, Mr. Nelson. I hope you don’t miss the show.”

I watched her sashay off around the bush, and I heard her boots crunching the gravel for a few steps, and then she was gone, footsteps and all. I went back in the house, latched the screen door and locked the wood, and took one last look through the front curtains, to make sure. Some folks, I had heard, remembered only long afterward they’d been kidnapped by spacemen, a “retrieved memory” they called it, like finding a ball on the roof in the fall that went up there in the spring. Those folks needed a doctor to jog them, but this reporter had jogged me. All that happy talk had loosened something inside me, and things I hadn’t thought about in years were welling up like a flash flood, like a sickness. If I was going to be memory-sick, I wanted powerfully to do it alone, as if alone was something new and urgent, and not what I did ever day.

I closed the junk-room door behind me as I yanked the light on. The swaying bulb on its chain rocked the shadows back and forth as I dragged from beneath a shelf a crate of cheap splinter wood, so big it could have held two men if they was dead. Once I drove my pickup to the plant to pick up a bulk of dog food straight off the dock, cheaper that way, and this was one of the crates it come in. It still had that faint high smell. As it slid, one corner snagged and ripped the carpet, laid open the orange shag to show the knotty pine beneath. The shag was threadbare, but why bother now buying a twenty-year rug? Three tackle boxes rattled and jiggled on top of the crate, two yawning open and one rusted shut, and I set all three onto the floor. I lifted the lid of the crate, pushed aside the top layer, a fuzzy blue blanket, and started lifting things out one at a time. I just glanced at some, spent more time with others. I warn’t looking for anything in particular, just wanting to touch them and weigh them in my hands, and stack the memories up all around, in a back room under a bare bulb.

A crimpled flier with a dry mud footprint across it and a torn place up top, like someone yanked it off a staple on a bulletin board or a telephone pole:



Hear speakers who have contacted our Space Brothers


Lots of music—Astronomical telescope, see the craters on the Moon, etc.

Public invited—Spread the word

Admission—50¢ and $1.00 donation

Children under school age free


Bring your own tent, house car or camping outfit, folding chairs, sleeping bags, etc.

CAFETERIA on the grounds—fried chicken, sandwiches, coffee, cold drinks, etc.

Conventions held every year on the last Saturday, Sunday and Monday of the month of June



Buck Nelson, Route 1

Mountain View, Missouri

A headline from a local paper: “Spacecraft Picnic at Buck’s Ranch Attracts 2000 People.”

An old Life magazine in a see-through envelope, Marilyn Monroe all puckered up to the plastic. April 7, 1952. The headline: “There Is A Case For Interplanetary Saucers.” I slid out the magazine and flipped through the article. I read: “These objects cannot be explained by present science as natural phenomena—but solely as artificial devices created and operated by a high intelligence.”

A Baggie of three or four dog hairs, with a sticker showing the outline of a flying saucer and the words HAIR FROM BUCK’S ALIEN DOG “BO.”

Teddy hadn’t minded, when I took the scissors to him to get the burrs off, and to snip a little extra for the Bo trade. Bo was months dead by then, but the folks demanded something. Some of my neighbors I do believe would have pulled down my house and barn a-looking for him, if they thought there was a body to be had. Some people won’t believe in nothing that ain’t a corpse, and I couldn’t bear letting the science men get at him with their saws and jars, to jibble him up. Just the thought put me in mind of that old song:

The old horse died with the whooping cough

The old cow died in the fork of the branch

The buzzards had them a public dance.

No, sir. No public dance this time. I hid Bo’s body in a shallow cave, and I nearabouts crawled in after him, cause it liked to have killed me, too, even with the tractor’s front arms to lift him and push him and drop him. Then I walled him up so good with scree and stones lying around that even I warn’t sure anymore where it was, along that long rock face.

I didn’t let on that he was gone, neither. Already people were getting shirty about me not showing him off like a circus mule, bringing him out where people could gawk at him and poke him and ride him. I told them he was vicious around strangers, and that was a bald lie. He was a sweet old thing for his size, knocking me down with his licking tongue, and what was I but a stranger, at the beginning? We was all strangers. Those Baggies of Teddy hair was a bald lie, too, and so was some of the other parts I told through the years, when my story sort of got away from itself, or when I couldn’t exactly remember what had happened in between this and that, so I had to fill in, the same way I filled the chinks between the rocks I stacked between me and Bo, to keep out the buzzards, hoping it’d be strong enough to last forever.

But a story ain’t like a wall. The more stuff you add onto a wall, spackle and timber and flat stones, the harder it is to push down. The more stuff you add to a story through the years, the weaker it gets. Add a piece here and add a piece there, and in time you can’t remember your own self how the pieces was supposed to fit together, and every piece is a chance for some fool to ask more questions, and confuse you more, and poke another hole or two, to make you wedge in something else, and there is no end to it. So finally you just don’t want to tell no part of the story no more, except to yourself, because yourself is the only one who really believes in it. In some of it, anyway. The other folks, the ones who just want to laugh, to make fun, you run off or cuss out or turn your back on, until no one much asks anymore, or remembers, or cares. You’re just that tetched old dirt farmer off of Route One, withered and sick and sitting on the floor of his junk room and crying, snot hanging from his nose, sneezing in the dust.

It warn’t all a lie, though.

No, sir. Not by a long shot.

And that was the worst thing.

Because the reporters always came, ever year at the end of June, and so did the duck hunters who saw something funny in the sky above the blind one frosty morning and was looking for it ever since, and the retired military fellas who talked about “protocols” and “incident reports” and “security breaches,” and the powdery old ladies who said they’d walked around the rosebush one afternoon and found themselves on the rings of Saturn, and the beatniks from the college, and the tourists with their Polaroids and short pants, and the women selling funnel cakes and glow-in-the-dark space Frisbees, and the younguns with the waving antennas on their heads, and the neighbors who just wanted to snoop around and see whether old Buck had finally let the place go to rack and ruin, or whether he was holding it together for one more year, they all showed up on time, just like the mockingbirds. But the one person who never came, not one damn time since the year of our Lord nineteen and fifty-six, was the alien Bob Solomon himself. The whole point of the damn picnics, the Man of the Hour, had never showed his face. And that was the real reason I give up on the picnics, turned sour on the whole flying-saucer industry, and kept close to the willows ever since. It warn’t my damn lumbago or the Mothman or Barney and Betty Hill and their Romper Room boogeymen, or those dull dumb rocks hauled back from the Moon and thrown in my face like coal in a Christmas stocking. It was Bob Solomon, who said he’d come back, stay in touch, continue to shine down his blue-white healing light, because he loved the Earth people, because he loved me, and who done none of them things.

What had happened, to keep Bob Solomon away? He hadn’t died. Death was a stranger, out where Bob Solomon lived. Bo would be frisky yet, if he’d a stayed home. No, something had come between Mountain View and Bob Solomon, to keep him away. What had I done? What had I not done? Was it something I knew, that I wasn’t supposed to know? Or was it something I forgot, or cast aside, something I should have held on to and treasured? And now, if Bob Solomon was to look for Mountain View, could he find it? Would he know me? The Earth goes a far ways in twenty-odd years, and we go with it.

I wiped my nose on my hand and slid Marilyn back in her plastic and reached for the chain and clicked off the light and sat in the chilly dark, making like it was the cold clear peace of space.

I knew well the turnoff to the Clearwater Lake overlook, and I still like to have missed it that night, so black dark was the road through the woods. The sign with the arrow had deep-cut letters filled with white reflecting paint, and only the flash of the letters in the headlights made me stand on the brakes and kept me from missing the left turn. I sat and waited, turn signal on, flashing green against the pine boughs overhead, even though there was no sign of cars a-coming from either direction. Ka-chunk, ka-chunk, flashed the pine trees, and then I turned off with a grumble of rubber as the tires left the asphalt and bit into the gravel of the overlook road. The stone-walled overlook had been built by the CCC in the 1930s, and the road the relief campers had built hadn’t been improved much since, so I went up the hill slow on that narrow, straight road, away back in the jillikens. Once I saw the eyes of some critter as it dashed across my path, but nary a soul else, and when I reached the pullaround, and that low-slung wall all along the ridgetop, I thought maybe I had the wrong place. But then I saw two cars and a panel truck parked at the far end where younguns park when they go a-sparking, and I could see dark people-shapes a-milling about. I parked a ways away, shut off my engine, and cut my lights. This helped me see a little better, and I could make out flashlight beams trained on the ground here and there, as people walked from the cars to where some big black shapes were set up, taller than a man. In the silence after I slammed my door I could hear low voices, too, and as I walked nearer, the murmurs resolved themselves and became words:

“Gravimeter checks out.”

“Thank you, Isobel. Wallace, how about that spectrum analyzer?”

“Powering up, Doc. Have to give it a minute.”

“We may not have a minute, or we may have ten hours. Who knows?” I steered toward this voice, which was older than the others. “Our visitors are unpredictable,” he continued.

“Visitors?” the girl asked.

“No, you’re right. I’ve broken my own rule. We don’t know they’re sentient, and even if they are, we don’t know they’re visitors. They may be local, native to the place, certainly more so than Wallace here. Georgia-born, aren’t you, Wallace?”

“Company, Doc,” said the boy.

“Yes, I see him, barely. Hello, sir. May I help you? Wallace, please. Mind your manners.” The flashlight beam in my face had blinded me, but the professor grabbed it out of the boy’s hand and turned it up to shine beneath his chin, like a youngun making a scary face, so I could see a shadow version of his lumpy jowls, his big nose, his bushy mustache. “I’m Harley Rutledge,” he said. “Might you be Mr. Nelson?”

“That’s me,” I said, and as I stuck out a hand, the flashlight beam moved to locate it. Then a big hand came into view and shook mine. The knuckles were dry and cracked and red-flaked.

“How do you do,” Rutledge said, and switched off the flashlight. “Our mutual friend explained what we’re doing out here, I presume? Forgive the darkness, but we’ve learned that too much brightness on our part rather spoils the seeing, skews the experiment.”

“Scares ’em off?” I asked.

“Mmm,” Rutledge said. “No, not quite that. Besides the lack of evidence for any them that could be frightened, we have some evidence that these, uh, luminous phenomena are…responsive to our lights. If we wave ours around too much, they wave around in response. We shine ours into the water, they descend into the water as well. All fascinating, but it does suggest a possibility of reflection, of visual echo, which we are at some pains to rule out. Besides which, we’d like to observe, insofar as possible, what these lights do when not observed. Though they seem difficult to fool. Some, perhaps fancifully, have suggested they can read investigators’ minds. Ah, Wallace, are we up and running, then? Very good, very good.” Something hard and plastic was nudging my arm, and I thought for a second Rutledge was offering me a drink. “Binoculars, Mr. Nelson? We always carry spares, and you’re welcome to help us look.”

The girl’s voice piped up. “We’re told you’ve seen the spooklights all your life,” she said. “Is that true?”

“I reckon you could say that,” I said, squinting into the binoculars. Seeing the darkness up close made it even darker.

“That is so cool,” Isobel said. “I’m going to write my thesis on low-level nocturnal lights of apparent volition. I call them linnalavs for short. Will-o’-the-wisps, spooklights, treasure lights, corpse lights, ball lightning, fireships, jack-o-lanterns, the feu follet. I’d love to interview you sometime. Just think, if you had been recording your observations all these years.”

I did record some, I almost said, but Rutledge interrupted us. “Now, Isobel, don’t crowd the man on short acquaintance. Why don’t you help Wallace with the tape recorders? Your hands are steadier, and we don’t want him cutting himself again.” She stomped off, and I found something to focus on with the binoculars: the winking red light atop the Taum Sauk Mountain fire tower. “You’ll have to excuse Isobel, Mr. Nelson. She has the enthusiasm of youth, and she’s just determined to get ball lightning in there somehow, though I keep explaining that’s an entirely separate phenomenon.”

“Is that what our friend, that reporter gal, told you?” I asked. “That I seen the spooklights in these parts, since I was a tad?”

“Yes, and that you were curious about our researches, to compare your folk knowledge to our somewhat more scientific investigations. And as I told her, you’re welcome to join us tonight, as long as you don’t touch any of our equipment, and as long as you stay out of our way should anything, uh, happen. Rather irregular, having an untrained local observer present—but frankly, Mr. Nelson, everything about Project Identification is irregular, at least as far as the U.S. Geological Survey is concerned. So we’ll both be irregular together, heh.” A round green glow appeared and disappeared at chest level: Rutledge checking his watch. “I frankly thought Miss Rains would be coming with you. She’ll be along presently, I take it?”

“Don’t ask me,” I said, trying to see the tower itself beneath the light. Black metal against black sky. I’d heard her name as Hanes, but I let it go. “Maybe she got a better offer.”

“Oh, I doubt that, not given her evident interest. Know Miss Rains well, do you, Mr. Nelson?”

“Can’t say as I do. Never seen her before this morning. No, wait. Before yesterday.”

“Lovely girl,” Rutledge said. “And so energized.”

“Sort of wears me out,” I told him.

“Yes, well, pleased to meet you, again. I’d better see how Isobel and Wallace are getting along. There are drinks and snacks in the truck, and some folding chairs and blankets. We’re here all night, so please make yourself at home.”

I am home, I thought, fiddling with the focus on the binoculars as Rutledge trotted away, his little steps sounding like a spooked quail. I hadn’t let myself look at the night sky for anything but quick glances for so long, just to make sure the Moon and Venus and Old Rion and the Milky Way was still there, that I was feeling sort of giddy to have nothing else to look at. I was like a man who took the cure years ago but now finds himself locked in a saloon. That brighter patch over yonder, was that the lights of Piedmont? And those two, no, three, airplanes, was they heading for St. Louis? I reckon I couldn’t blame Miss Priss for not telling the professor the whole truth about me, else he would have had the law out here, to keep that old crazy man away. I wondered where Miss Priss had got to. Rutledge and I both had the inkle she would be joining us out here, but where had I got that? Had she quite said it, or had I just assumed?

I focused again on the tower light, which warn’t flashing no more. Instead it was getting stronger and weaker and stronger again, like a heartbeat, and never turning full off. It seemed to be growing, too, taking up more of the view, as if it was coming closer. I was so interested in what the fire watchers might be up to—testing the equipment? signaling rangers on patrol?—that when the light moved sideways toward the north, I turned, too, and swung the binoculars around to keep it in view, and didn’t think nothing odd about a fire tower going for a little walk until the boy Wallace said, “There’s one now, making its move.”

The college folks all talked at once: “Movie camera on.” “Tape recorder on.” “Gravimeter negative.” I heard the click-whirr, click-whirr of someone taking Polaroids just as fast as he could go. For my part, I kept following the spooklight as it bobbled along the far ridge, bouncing like a slow ball or a balloon, and pulsing as it went. After the burst of talking, everyone was silent, watching the light and fooling with the equipment. Then the professor whispered in my ear: “Look familiar to you, Mr. Nelson?”

It sure warn’t a patch on Bob Solomon’s spaceship, but I knew Rutledge didn’t have Bob Solomon in mind. “The spooklights I’ve seen was down lower,” I told him, “below the tops of the trees, most times hugging the ground. This one moves the same, but it must be up fifty feet in the air.”

“Maybe,” he whispered, “and maybe not. Appearances can be deceiving. Hey!” he cried aloud as the slow bouncy light shot straight up in the air. It hung there, then fell down to the ridgeline again and kept a-going, bobbing down the far slope, between us and the ridge, heading toward the lake and toward us.

The professor asked, “Gravitational field?”

“No change,” the girl said.

“Keep monitoring.”

The light split in two, then in three. All three lights came toward us.

“Here they come! Here they come!”

I couldn’t keep all three in view, so I stuck with the one making the straightest shot downhill. Underneath it, treetops came into view as the light passed over, just as if it was a helicopter with a spotlight. But there warn’t no engine sound at all, just the sound of a zephyr a-stirring the leaves, and the clicks of someone snapping pictures. Even Bob Solomon’s craft had made a little racket: It whirred as it moved, and turned on and off with a whunt like the fans in a chickenhouse. It was hard to tell the light’s shape. It just faded out at the edges, as the pulsing came and went. It was blue-white in motion but flickered red when it paused. I watched the light bounce down to the far shore of the lake. Then it flashed real bright, and was gone. I lowered the binoculars in time to see the other two hit the water and flash out, too—but one sent a smaller fireball rolling across the water toward us. When it slowed down, it sank, just like a rock a child sends a-skipping across a pond. The water didn’t kick up at all, but the light could be seen below for a few seconds, until it sank out of sight.

“Awesome!” Isobel said.

“Yeah, that was something,” Wallace said. “Wish we had a boat. Can we bring a boat next time, Doc? Hey, why is it so light?”

“Moonrise,” Isobel said. “See our moonshadows?”

We did all have long shadows, reaching over the wall and toward the lake. I always heard that to stand in your own moonshadow means good luck, but I didn’t get the chance to act on it before the professor said: “That’s not the moon.”

The professor was facing away from the water, toward the source of light. Behind us a big bright light moved through the trees, big as a house. The beams shined out separately between the trunks but then they closed up together again as the light moved out onto the surface of the gravel pull-around. It was like a giant glowing upside-down bowl, twenty-five feet high, a hundred or more across, sliding across the ground. You could see everything lit up inside, clear as a bell, like in a tabletop aquarium in a dark room. But it warn’t attached to nothing. Above the light dome was no spotlight, no aircraft, nothing but the night sky and stars.

“Wallace, get that camera turned around, for God’s sake!”

“Instruments read nothing, Doc. It’s as if it weren’t there.”

“Maybe it’s not. No, Mr. Nelson! Please, stay back!”

But I’d already stepped forward to meet it, binoculars hanging by their strap at my side, bouncing against my leg as I walked into the light. Inside I didn’t feel nothing physical—no tingling, and no warmth, no more than turning on a desk lamp warms a room. But in my mind I felt different, powerful different. Standing there in that light, I felt more calm and easeful than I’d felt in years—like I was someplace I belonged, more so than on my own farm. As the edge of the light crept toward me, I slow-walked in the same direction, just to keep in the light as long as I could.

The others, outside the light, did the opposite. They scattered back toward the wall of the overlook, trying to stay in the dark ahead of it, but they didn’t have no place to go, and in a few seconds they was all in the light, too, the three of them and their standing telescopes and all their equipment on folding tables and sawhorses all around. I got my first good look at the three of them in that crawling glow. Wallace had hippie hair down in his eyes and a beaky nose, and was bowlegged. The professor was older than I expected, but not nearly so old as me, and had a great big belly—what mountain folks would call an investment, as he’d been putting into it for years. Isobel had long stringy hair that needed a wash, and a wide butt, and black-rimmed glasses so thick a welder could have worn them, but she was right cute for all that. None of us cast a shadow inside the light.

I looked up and could see the night sky and even pick out the stars, but it was like looking through a soap film or a skiff of snow. Something I couldn’t feel or rightly see was in the way, between me and the sky. Still I walked until the thigh-high stone wall stopped me. The dome kept moving, of course, and as I went through its back edge—because it was just that clear-cut, either you was in the light or you warn’t—why, I almost swung my legs over the wall to follow it. The hill, though, dropped off steep on the other side, and the undergrowth was all tangled and snaky. So I held up for a few seconds, dithering, and then the light had left me behind, and I was in the dark again, pressed up against that wall like something drowned and found in a drain after a flood. I now could feel the breeze off the lake, so air warn’t moving easy through the light dome, neither.

The dome kept moving over the folks from the college, slid over the wall and down the slope, staying about twenty-five feet tall the whole way. It moved out onto the water—which stayed as still as could be, not roiled at all—then faded, slow at first and then faster, until I warn’t sure I was looking at anything anymore, and then it was gone.

The professor slapped himself on the cheeks and neck, like he was putting on aftershave. “No sunburn, thank God,” he said. “How do the rest of you feel?”

The other two slapped themselves just the same.

“I’m fine.”

“I’m fine, too,” Isobel said. “The Geiger counter never triggered, either.”

What did I feel like? Like I wanted to dance, to skip and cut capers, to holler out loud. My eyes were full like I might cry. I stared at that dark lake like I could stare a hole in it, like I could will that dome to rise again. I whispered, “Thank you,” and it warn’t a prayer, not directed at anybody, just an acknowledgment of something that had passed, like tearing off a calendar page, or plowing under a field of cornstalks.

I turned to the others, glad I finally had someone to talk to, someone I could share all these feelings with, but to my surprise they was all running from gadget to gadget, talking at once about phosphorescence and gas eruptions and electromagnetic fields, I couldn’t follow half of it. Where had they been? Had they plumb missed it? For the first time in years, I felt I had to tell them what I had seen, what I had felt and known, the whole story. It would help them. It would be a comfort to them.

I walked over to them, my hands held out. I wanted to calm them down, get their attention.

“Oh, thank you, Mr. Nelson,” said the professor. He reached out and unhooked from my hand the strap of the binoculars. “I’ll take those. Well, I’d say you brought us luck, wouldn’t you agree, Isobel, Wallace? Quite a remarkable display, that second one especially. Like the Bahia Kino Light of the Gulf of California, but in motion! Ionization of the air, perhaps, but no Geiger activity, mmm. A lower voltage, perhaps?” He patted his pockets. “Need a shopping list for our next vigil. A portable Curran counter, perhaps—”

I grabbed at his sleeve. “I saw it.”

“Yes? Well, we all saw it, Mr. Nelson. Really a tremendous phenomenon—if the distant lights and the close light are related, that is, and their joint appearance cannot be coincidental. I’ll have Isobel take your statement before we go, but now, if you’ll excuse me.”

“I don’t mean tonight,” I said, “and I don’t mean no spooklights. I seen the real thing, an honest-to-God flying saucer, in 1956. At my farm outside Mountain View, west of here. Thataway.” I pointed. “It shot out a beam of light, and after I was in that light, I felt better, not so many aches and pains. And listen: I saw it more than once, the saucer. It kept coming back.”

He was backing away from me. “Mr. Nelson, really, I must—”

“And I met the crew,” I told him. “The pilot stepped out of the saucer to talk with me. That’s right, with me. He looked human, just like you and me, only better-looking. He looked like that boy in Battle Cry, Tab Hunter. But he said his name was—”

“Mr. Nelson.” The early-morning light was all around by now, giving everything a gray glow, and I could see Rutledge was frowning. “Please. You’ve had a very long night, and a stressful one. You’re tired, and I’m sorry to say that you’re no longer young. What you’re saying no longer makes sense.”

“Don’t make sense!” I cried. “You think what we just saw makes sense?”

“I concede that I have no ready explanations, but what we saw were lights, Mr. Nelson, only lights. No sign of intelligence, nor of aircraft. Certainly not of crew members. No little green men. No grays. No Tab Hunter from the Moon.”

“He lived on Mars,” I said, “and his name was Bob Solomon.”

The professor stared at me. The boy behind him, Wallace, stared at me, too, nearabouts tripping over his own feet as he bustled back and forth toting things to the truck. The girl just shook her head, and turned and walked into the woods.

“I wrote it up in a little book,” I told the professor. “Well, I say I wrote it. Really, I talked it out, and I paid a woman at the library to copy it down and type it. I got a copy in the pickup. Let me get it. Won’t take a sec.”

“Mr. Nelson,” he said again, “I’m sorry, I truly am. If you write me at the college, and enclose your address, I’ll see you get a copy of our article, should it appear. We welcome interest in our work from the layman. But for now, here, today, I must ask you to leave.”

“Leave? But the gal here said I could help.”

“That was before you expressed these…delusions,” Rutledge said. “Please realize what I’m trying to do. Like Hynek, like Vallee and Maccabee, I am trying to establish these researches as a serious scientific discipline. I am trying to create a field where none exists, where Isobel and her peers can work and publish without fear of ridicule. And here you are, spouting nonsense about a hunky spaceman named Bob! You must realize how that sounds. Why, you’d make the poor girl a laughing stock.”

“She don’t want to interview me?”

“Interview you! My God, man, aren’t you listening? It would be career suicide for her to be seen with you! Please, before the sun is full up, Mr. Nelson, please, do the decent thing, and get back into your truck, and go.”

I felt myself getting madder and madder. My hands had turned into fists. I turned from the professor, pointed at the back-and-forth boy, and hollered, “You!”

He froze, like I had pulled a gun on him.

I called: “You take any Polaroids of them things?”

“Some, yes, sir,” he said, at the exact same time the professor said, “Don’t answer that.”

“Where are they?” I asked. “I want to see ’em.”

Behind the boy was a card table covered with notebooks and Mountain Dew bottles and the Polaroid camera, too, with a stack of picture squares next to it. I walked toward the table, and the professor stepped into my path, crouched, arms outstretched, like we was gonna wrestle.

“Keep away from the equipment,” Rutledge said.

The boy ran back to the table and snatched up the pictures as I feinted sideways, and the professor lunged to block me again.

“I want to see them pictures, boy,” I said.

“Mr. Nelson, go home! Wallace, secure those photos.”

Wallace looked around like he didn’t know what “secure” meant, in the open air overlooking a mountain lake, then he started stuffing the photos into his pockets, until they poked out all around, sort of comical. Two fell out on the ground. Then Wallace picked up a folding chair and held it out in front of him like a lion tamer. Stenciled across the bottom of the chair was PROP. CUMBEE FUNERAL HOME.

I stooped and picked up a rock and cocked my hand back like I was going to fling it. The boy flinched backward, and I felt right bad about scaring him. I turned and made like to throw it at the professor instead, and when he flinched, I felt some better. Then I turned and made like to throw it at the biggest telescope, and that felt best of all, for both boy and professor hollered then, no words but just a wail from the boy and a bark from the man, so loud that I nearly dropped the rock.

“Pictures, pictures,” I said. “All folks want is pictures. People didn’t believe nothing I told ’em, because during the first visits I didn’t have no camera, and then when I rented a Brownie to take to Venus with me, didn’t none of the pictures turn out! All of ’em overexposed, the man at the Rexall said. I ain’t fooled with no pictures since, but I’m gonna have one of these, or so help me, I’m gonna bust out the eyes of this here spyglass, you see if I won’t. Don’t you come no closer with that chair, boy! You set that thing down.” I picked up a second rock, so I had one heavy weight in each hand, and felt good. I knocked them together with a clop like hooves, and I walked around to the business end of the telescope, where the eyepiece and all those tiny adjustable thingies was, because that looked like the underbelly. I held the rocks up to either side, like I was gonna knock them together and smash the instruments in between. I bared my teeth and tried to look scary, which warn’t easy because now that it was good daylight, I suddenly had to pee something fierce. It must have worked, though, because Wallace set down the chair, just about the time the girl Isobel stepped out of the woods.

She was tucking in her shirttail, like she’d answered her own call of nature. She saw us all three standing there froze, and she got still, too, one hand down the back of her britches. Her darting eyes all magnified in her glasses looked quick and smart.

“What’s going on?” she asked. Her front teeth stuck out like a chipmunk’s.

“I want to see them pictures,” I said.

“Isobel,” the professor said, “drive down to the bait shop and call the police.” He picked up an oak branch, hefted it, and started stripping off the little branches, like that would accomplish anything. “Run along, there’s a good girl. Wallace and I have things well in hand.”

“The heck we do,” Wallace said. “I bring back a wrecked telescope, and I kiss my work-study good-bye.”

“Jesus wept,” Isobel said, and walked down the slope, tucking in the rest of her shirttail. She rummaged on the table, didn’t find them, then saw the two stray pictures lying on the ground at Wallace’s feet. She picked one up, walked over to me, held it out.

The professor said, “Isabel, don’t! That’s university property.”

“Here, Mr. Nelson,” she said. “Just take it and go, okay?”

I was afraid to move, for fear I’d wet my pants. My eyeballs was swimming already. I finally let fall one of my rocks and took the photo in that free hand, stuck it in my overalls pocket without looking at it. “Preciate it,” I said. For no reason, I handed her the other rock, and for no reason, she took it. I turned and walked herky-jerky toward my truck, hoping I could hold it till I got into the woods at least, but no, I gave up halfway there, and with my back to the others I unzipped and groaned and let fly a racehorse stream of pee that spattered the tape-recorder case.

I heard the professor moan behind me, “Oh, Mr. Nelson! This is really too bad!”

“I’m sorry!” I cried. “It ain’t on purpose, I swear! I was about to bust.” I probably would have tried to aim it, at that, to hit some of that damned equipment square on, but I hadn’t had no force nor distance on my pee for years. It just poured out, like pulling a plug. I peed and peed, my eyes rolling back, lost in the good feeling (“You go, Mr. Nelson!” Isobel yelled), and as it puddled and coursed in little rills around the rocks at my feet, I saw a fisherman in a distant rowboat in the middle of the lake, his line in the water just where that corpse light had submerged the night before. I couldn’t see him good, but I could tell he was watching us, as his boat drifted along. The sparkling water looked like it was moving fast past him, the way still water in the sun always does, even though the boat hardly moved at all.

“You wouldn’t eat no fish from there,” I hollered at him, “if you knew what was underneath.”

His only answer was a pop and a hiss that carried across the water loud as a firework. He slung away the pull top, lifted the can, raised it high toward us as if to say, Cheers, and took a long drink.

Finally done, I didn’t even zip up as I shuffled to the pickup. Without all that pee I felt lightheaded and hollow and plumb worn out. I wondered whether I’d make it home before I fell asleep.

“Isobel,” the professor said behind me, “I asked you to go call the police.”

“Oh, for God’s sake, let it go,” she said. “You really would look like an asshole then. Wallace, give me a hand.”

I crawled into the pickup, slammed the door, dropped the window—it didn’t crank down anymore, just fell into the door, so that I had to raise it two-handed—cranked the engine and drove off without looking at the bucktoothed girl, the bowlegged boy, the professor holding a club in his bloody-knuckled hands, the fisherman drinking his breakfast over a spook hole. I caught one last sparkle of the morning sun on the surface of the lake as I swung the truck into the shade of the woods, on the road headed down to the highway. Light through the branches dappled my rusty hood, my cracked dashboard, my baggy overalls. Some light is easy to explain. I fished the Polaroid picture out of my pocket and held it up at eye level while I drove. All you could see was a bright white nothing, like the boy had aimed the lens at the glare of a hundred-watt bulb from an inch away. I tossed the picture out the window. Another dud, just like Venus. A funny thing: The cardboard square bounced to a standstill in the middle of the road and caught the light just enough to be visible in my rearview mirror, like a little bright window in the ground, until I reached the highway, signaled ka-chunk, ka-chunk, and turned to the right, toward home.

Later that morning I sat on the porch, waiting for her. Staring at the lake had done me no good, no more than staring at the night sky over the barn had done, all those years, but staring at the rhododendron called her forth, sure enough. She stepped around the bush with a little wave. She looked sprightly as ever, for all that long walk up the steep driveway, but I didn’t blame her for not scraping her car past all those close bushes. One day they’d grow together and intertwine their limbs like clasped hands, and I’d be cut off from the world like in a fairy tale. But I wasn’t cut off yet, because here came Miss Priss, with boots up over her knees and dress hiked up to yonder, practically. Her colors were red and black today, even that fool saucer hat was red with a black button in the center. She was sipping out of a box with a straw in it.

“I purely love orange juice,” she told me. “Whenever I’m traveling, I can’t get enough of it. Here, I brought you one.” I reached out and took the box offered, and she showed me how to peel off the straw and poke a hole with it, and we sat side by side sipping awhile. I didn’t say nothing, just sipped and looked into Donald Duck’s eyes and sipped some more. Finally she emptied her juice box with a long low gurgle and turned to me and asked, “Did you make it out to the lake last night?”

“I did that thing, yes ma’am.”

“See anything?”

The juice was brassy-tasting and thin, but it was growing on me, and I kept a-working that straw. “Didn’t see a damn thing,” I said. I cut my eyes at her. “Didn’t see you, neither.”

“Yes, well, I’m sorry about that,” she said. “My supervisors called me away. When I’m on assignment, my time is not my own.” Now she cut her eyes at me. “You sure you didn’t see anything?”

I shook my head, gurgled out the last of my juice. “Nothing Dr. Rutledge can’t explain away,” I said. “Nothing you could have a conversation with.”

“How’d you like Dr. Rutledge?”

“We got along just fine,” I said, “when he warn’t hunting up a club to beat me with, and I warn’t pissing into his machinery. He asked after you, though. You was the one he wanted along on his camping trip, out there in the dark.”

“I’ll try to call on him, before I go.”

“Go where?”

She fussed with her hat. “Back home. My assignment’s over.”

“Got everthing you needed, did you?”

“Yes, I think so. Thanks to you.”

“Well, I ain’t,” I said. I turned and looked her in the face. “I ain’t got everthing I need, myself. What I need ain’t here on this Earth. It’s up yonder, someplace I can’t get to no more. Ain’t that a bitch? And yet I was right satisfied until two days ago, when you come along and stirred me all up again. I never even went to bed last night, and I ain’t sleepy even now. All I can think about is night coming on again, and what I might see up there this time.”

“But that’s a good thing,” she said. “You keep your eyes peeled, Mr. Nelson. You’ve seen things already, and you haven’t seen the last of them.” She tapped my arm with her juice-box straw. “I have faith in you,” she said. “I wasn’t sure at first. That’s why I came to visit, to see if you were keeping the faith. And I see now that you are—in your own way.”

“I ain’t got no faith,” I said. “I done aged out of it.”

She stood up. “Oh, pish tosh,” she said. “You proved otherwise last night. The others tried to stay out of the light, but not you, Mr. Nelson. Not you.” She set her juice box on the step beside mine. “Throw that away for me, will you? I got to be going.” She stuck out her hand. It felt hot to the touch, and powerful. Holding it gave me the strength to stand up, look into her eyes, and say:

“I made it all up. The dog Bo, and the trips to Venus and Mars, and the cured lumbago. It was a made-up story, ever single Lord God speck of it.”

And I said that sincerely. Bob Solomon forgive me: As I said it, I believed it was true.

She looked at me for a spell, her eyes big. She looked for a few seconds like a child I’d told Santa warn’t coming, ever again. Then she grew back up, and with a sad little smile she stepped toward me, pressed her hands flat to the chest bib of my overalls, stood on tippytoes, and kissed me on the cheek, the way she would her grandpap, and as she slid something into my side pocket she whispered in my ear, “That’s not what I hear on Enceladus.” She patted my pocket. “That’s how to reach me, if you need me. But you won’t need me.” She stepped into the yard and walked away, swinging her pocketbook, and called back over her shoulder: “You know what you need, Mr. Nelson? You need a dog. A dog is good help around a farm. A dog will sit up with you, late at night, and lie beside you, and keep you warm. You ought to keep your eye out. You never know when a stray will turn up.”

She walked around the bush and was gone. I picked up the empty Donald Ducks, because it was something to do, and I was turning to go in when a man’s voice called:

“Mr. Buck Nelson?”

A young man in a skinny tie and horn-rimmed glasses stood at the edge of the driveway where Miss Priss—no, Miss Rains, she deserved her true name—had stood a few moments before. He walked forward, one hand outstretched and the other reaching into the pocket of his denim jacket. He pulled out a long flat notebook.

“My name’s Matt Ketchum,” he said, “and I’m pleased to find you, Mr. Nelson. I’m a reporter with The Associated Press, and I’m writing a story on the surviving flying-saucer contactees of the 1950s.”

I caught him up short when I said, “Aw, not again! Damn it all, I just told all that to Miss Rains. She works for the A&P, too.”

He withdrew his hand, looked blank.

I pointed to the driveway. “Hello, you must have walked past her in the drive, not two minutes ago! Pretty girl in a red-and-black dress, boots up to here. Miss Rains, or Hanes, or something like that.”

“Mr. Nelson, I’m not following you. I don’t work with anyone named Rains or Hanes, and no one else has been sent out here but me. And that driveway was deserted. No other cars parked down at the highway, either.” He cocked his head, gave me a pitying look. “Are you sure you’re not thinking of some other day, sir?”

“But she…,” I said, hand raised toward my bib pocket—but something kept me from saying gave me her card. That pocket felt strangely warm, like there was a live coal in it.

“Maybe she worked for someone else, Mr. Nelson, like UPI, or maybe the Post-Dispatch? I hope I’m not scooped again. I wouldn’t be surprised, with the Spielberg picture coming out and all.”

I turned to focus on him for the first time. “Where is Enceladus, anyway?”

“I beg your pardon?”

I said it again, moving my lips all cartoony, like he was deaf.

“I, well, I don’t know, sir. I’m not familiar with it.”

I thought a spell. “I do believe,” I said, half to myself, “it’s one a them Saturn moons.” To jog my memory, I made a fist of my right hand and held it up—that was Saturn—and held up my left thumb a ways from it, and moved it back and forth, sighting along it. “It’s out a ways, where the ring gets sparse. Thirteenth? Fourteenth, maybe?”

He just goggled at me. I gave him a sad look and shook my head and said, “You don’t know much, if that’s what you know, and that’s a fact.”

He cleared his throat. “Anyway, Mr. Nelson, as I was saying, I’m interviewing all the contactees I can find, like George Van Tassel, and Orfeo Angelucci—”

“Yes, yes, and Truman Bethurum, and them,” I said. “She talked to all them, too.”

“Bethurum?” he repeated. He flipped through his notebook. “Wasn’t he the asphalt spreader, the one who met the aliens atop a mesa in Nevada?”

“Yeah, that’s the one.”

He looked worried now. “Um, Mr. Nelson, you must have misunderstood her. Truman Bethurum died in 1969. He’s been dead eight years, sir.”

I stood there looking at the rhododendron and seeing the pretty face and round hat, hearing the singsong voice, like she had learned English from a book.

I turned and went into the house, let the screen bang shut behind, didn’t bother to shut the wood door.

“Mr. Nelson?”

My chest was plumb hot now. I went straight to the junk room, yanked on the light. Everything was spread out on the floor where I left it. I shoved aside Marilyn, all the newspapers, pawed through the books.

“Mr. Nelson?” The voice was coming closer, moving through the house like a spooklight.

There it was: Aboard a Flying Saucer, by Truman Bethurum. I flipped through it, looking only at the pictures, until I found her: dark hair, big dark eyes, sharp chin, round hat. It was old Truman’s drawing of Captain Aura Rhanes, the sexy Space Sister from the planet Clarion who visited him eleven times in her little red-and-black uniform, come right into his bedroom, so often that Mrs. Bethurum got jealous and divorced him. I had heard that old Truman, toward the end, went out and hired girl assistants to answer his mail and take messages just because they sort of looked like Aura Rhanes.

“Mr. Nelson?” said young Ketchum, standing in the doorway. “Are you okay?”

I let drop the book, stood, and said, “Doing just fine, son. If you’ll excuse me? I got to be someplace.” I closed the door in his face, dragged a bookcase across the doorway to block it, and pulled out Miss Rhanes’ card, which was almost too hot to touch. No writing on it, neither, only a shiny silver surface that reflected my face like a mirror—and there was something behind my face, something a ways back inside the card, a moving silvery blackness like a field of stars rushing toward me, and as I stared into that card, trying to see, my reflection slid out of the way and the edges of the card flew out and the card was a window, a big window, and now a door that I moved through without stepping, and someone out there was playing a single fiddle, no dance tune but just a-scraping along slow and sad as the stars whirled around me, and a ringed planet was swimming into view, the rings on edge at first but now tilting toward me and thickening as I dived down, the rings getting closer, dividing into bands like layers in a rock face, and then into a field of rocks like that no-earthly-good south pasture, only there was so many rocks, so close together, and then I fell between them like an ant between the rocks in a gravel driveway, and now I was speeding toward a pinpoint of light, and as I moved toward it faster and faster, it grew and resolved itself and reshaped into a pear, a bulb, with a long sparkling line extending out, like a space elevator, like a chain, and at the end of the chain the moon became a glowing lightbulb. I was staring into the bulb in my junk room, dazzled, my eyes flashing, my head achy, and the card dropped from my fingers with no sound, and my feet were still shuffling though the fiddle had faded away. I couldn’t hear nothing over the knocking and the barking and young Ketchum calling: “Hey, Mr. Nelson? Is this your dog?”

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