This original short story is a special contribution from my friend, the author Chris Corkum, whose debut novel "XOXO Hayden" was the subject of a Q&A in March.
The following day Darlene worked "check out" which was fine because she could swipe products over the scanner and listen to the steady beep without having to paying attention to anything. One of the new baggers, Kyle, attempted several times to engage her in conversation but gave up when his questions or stories were met with terse one word responses.
Her shift finally ended and she took off her smock and hung it in her locker. She pulled on her winter coat and stepped outside into the parking lot. It was only three o'clock but the sun had already begun its wintry decent. She pulled her hands up into her sleeves to fight off the chill and looked around the parking lot, realizing she hadn't even thought to ask Dr. Michael Hightower what he looked like or what kind of car he drove. She waited, standing in front of the automatic door, listening to its suction opening and closing as customers walked in and out.
Near the end of the shopping center, by the Payless Shoe Store, she saw a figure, lingering. She wasn't certain if it was him but without any better prospects she decided to investigate further. The man wore a long wool coat and raised a cigarette to his mouth, blowing plumes of smoke into the air, mixed with frozen breath. As she got closer, she could see that he had glasses with circular lenses. His strawberry blonde hair was neatly parted to the side, his bangs dangling just above his eyes.
As she drew closer, he didn't exhibit any curiosity or seem to wonder if she was the person he was supposed to be meeting. Instead, he continued smoking his cigarette, lost in his own world.
"Hi," Darlene said, stopping in front of him.
"Hi," he responded, still with no recognition.
"Are you Dr. Michael Hightower?"
"Darlene. Yes. Of course."
Darlene wondered why he was acting so surprised. Hadn't he driven all of the way up here from Boston? Up closer, she also saw that he was much younger than she had expected. His clothes seemed too large for his body, like a boy playing dress up with his father's wardrobe.
He exhaled another mouthful of smoke and gazed out past the parking lot where the cars sailed along Route 1.
Darlene became impatient, annoyed that she was having to do all of the work. "So...what did you want to know?"
"Right. Of course," he said, as if suddenly reminded of the purpose of his visit. "What I'd like to do Darlene..." While speaking he pulled a business card out of his coat pocket and handed it to her. It was black with white lettering as if trying to mimic space, the letters as stars. "...is go to the spot where it happened. Can we do that? Can you take me there?"
"Sure." Darlene shrugged, putting his card in her pocket.
Darlene watched Dr. Michael Hightower in her rear view mirror as he followed her back to her house in a car that looked like a cop car but without the black and white. When they reached Shady Pines, he got out of the car and opened up the trunk, pulling out a large case of equipment. Next door, Mrs. Ellerson slowly walked to her mailbox in her one-piece sweat suit, keeping her eye on Dr. Michael Hightower.
"It's around back, where it happened," Darlene said.
Dr. Michael Hightower peered down at an instrument in his hand.
"What's that?" she asked.
"EVF counter. It measures electronic residue. It's already off the charts."
Dr. Michael Hightower maneuvered his cart through the patches of remaining snow, cutting parallel lines into the dead winter grass. The backyard was empty except for a capsized clothesline and Buddy's weathered doghouse which Darlene still didn't have the heart to get rid of after his death. Somehow, she liked the sight of it, as if one day he might surprise her and stick his head through the front cut out.
"This is where it happened," Darlene said, standing at the edge of the woods. The limbs and branches seemed skeletal, like a sketch from an artist's notebook not quiet finished. Dr. Michael Hightower's instrument was beeping aggressively now, the needle swinging back and forth.
"This is incredible."
"Yeah, I was sleeping and I felt this shaking and a high-pitched noise so that's when I came outside."
"Mmm hmmm," Dr. Michael Hightower murmured, scribbling in a tiny black and white composition notebook.
"I had my phone, so that's what I made the video with. But it stopped after a while and wouldn't record anymore.
"Uh-huh. Uh-huh. I see."
Dr. Michael Hightower seemed more interested in data collection than her story. As he scribbled frantically in his notebook, she stepped away, near Buddy's doghouse and pulled a cigarette out of her coat pocket. She lit it and smoked, watching as Dr. Michael Hightower walked further into the woods, holding his hands out straight in the air trying to sense something.
Darlene smoked another cigarette, and waited. It was getting cold and dark and she thought about going into the house. Her mother would be home any minute and she would have to explain Dr. Michael Hightower and the whole situation to her. Just as she was about to go back inside, she heard the crunch of dead leaves and snapping twigs. Dr. Michael Hightower appeared at the edge of the woods. He walked toward her, stopping in front of her silently.
Finally, Darlene was forced to say something. "Well?"
He slipped his notebook back into his pocket and stood up straight, looking at Darlene with seriousness. "They were here."
"The data I've collected is like nothing I've seen before. I need to take it back to the group and have it analyzed. They're going to want to send the rest of their team out here."
"Really?" Darlene asked. "That's terrific."
"I'll be in touch."
nodded, watching as he cut through the backyard, pulling his cart behind him.
This was hardest of all on Lisa. At "Brian's Adult World" patrons preferred to talk about other forms of life, ignoring Lisa while she swayed back and forth, topless. Darlene had been so consumed by Dr. Michael Hightower and his team that she barely had time to see her best friend. The few times that Lisa had stopped into see Darlene at the supermarket, she was surrounded by groups of people pleading with her to recount her experience for the tenth time. And at Darlene's house, it was complete chaos; electronic equipment everywhere, cables snaking through the house, neighbors lined up at the perimeter of the sidewalk patiently waiting for the second visitation. Worst of all, was that Lisa knew it wasn't real. The video was a complete fabrication and Darlene had gotten caught up in the spotlight. She wished Darlene would come clean and admit that it was just a shaky video and the aliens were not aliens at all. When Lisa tried to talk to her about it, Darlene became defensive and decided it was better for the two of them not to talk, at least until the research phase was over. Life without Darlene was both arduous and pointless. Lisa wanted her best friend back.
The gray days of February lingered. Business was slow at Brian's Adult World not to mention the fact that Lisa lost her Saturday night shift to Brenda, a twenty- two year old from Rochester. While waiting for the next customer to come, Lisa spent her time smoking cigarettes and watching soap operas in the back room. She had become so desperate for social interaction that she had even listened to Brian's monotonous conversation about the upcoming model airplane convention in April.
After the fourth day without speaking to her best friend, Lisa decided something needed to be done. Since there was no way of directly disproving the authenticity of Darlene's video footage, she decided the only way to cast doubt on it was to orchestrate another visitation. Later that night, she snuck into the basement of her house and rifled through some items left by the previous tenants. She dragged a set of work lights, two punching bags and an old pair of walk-talkies into the backyard. Beneath the glow of a crisp, quarter moon, she blew on her cold, chapped hands wondering if this really was such a good idea. But when she thought about the last four days she had spent without her best friend, she knew she had no choice but to continue.
She plugged in the lights with an extension cord and dragged them into the wooded side yard, looping the large bulbs over branches. At the edge of the trees, she lined up the two punching bags side by side and then stepped back, peering at it through her video camera. To her, it still looked like two punching bags and lights hanging in trees but she when she walked and shook the camera it appeared more believable. Some fool might actually take them for aliens. After all, they fell for Darlene's video. For sound, she took turned on the walkie talkies and placed them on top of each other, emitting a sharp, static sound. She was ready to go.
filmed several takes walking quickly around the area, turning in circles to
mimic the idea that she had been woken up in the middle of a dead sleep. She
breathed heavily like Darlene had done, though decided to tone it down a bit,
thinking it was a bit over the top. When she finished, she stood at the edge of
the woods, fingers numb, teeth chattering and looked at the evidence. It wasn't
perfect but it looked more authentic than Darlene's. Taking care to conceal the
props, she unstrung the lights and dragged the punching bags back down into the
basement. Beneath the warm covers in her bedroom, she watched the newly made
video clips, pleased with herself but more pleased at the prospect of getting
her best friend back.
"Where is everyone?" Darlene asked.
"Another sighting. On Peach Tree Lane."
"Peach Tree Lane?"
It was Lisa. Darlene was sure of it. "Lisa."
"Yeah, that's her name."
Darlene quickly left and drove to Lisa's house. When she got there, Lisa wasn't there, but the team members had begun setting up their equipment. Feeling betrayed, Darlene remained in the car watching them, before finally driving off to "Brian's Adult World."
When she got there, there were more cars in the parking lot than usual. She walked inside, passing Fat Brian who was uncharacteristically friendly. "Hey Darlene," he said with a goofy smile that made her thankful he didn't smile more often. "After Lisa's sighting, business has been great."
She continued toward the back of the store, where Lisa was sitting on the stage fully clothed with a group of men gathered around her.
"So did you feel anything when you saw them?" An overweight man with a full beard asked.
"Umm...well, it was kind of like a tingling sensation. You know like if you're watching TV for a long time and then you get up. It's kind of like that."
"Did they tell you anything?" a guy asked. He barely looked eighteen.
"No. I could tell they had something important to say but it's hard because they don't speak English. It all happened so quickly, which is what makes me think they'll come back again."
"Did any of them say you were lying?" Darlene asked, her arms folded tightly against her chest.
The men turned toward her. "She's not lying. We saw the video," the bearded man said.
"What? You think you're so special they could only visit you?" Lisa asked.
"No. But I'm not lying about it."
"Neither am I."
"I know you Lisa Eaton. I can tell when you're lying."
Fat Brian stepped toward the back, realizing Darlene was killing the ambience. "I think you should leave," he said, wrapping his thick fingers around her elbow.
"I think you're right. I don't want to stay in here with all of these phonies!"
Darlene pulled her arm away and stormed through the front door. The men brushed it off and continued asking Lisa more questions.
Darlene drove the streets, stopping only for a coffee at Cumberland Farms. She didn't want to go home. She didn't want to face the loneliness of her house with no one there, except her mother. Besides, she knew she had to settle this once and for all with Lisa. So she waited in the parking lot of Brian's Adult World, smoking cigarettes in her car until Lisa finished her shift.
At nine o'clock, Lisa stepped out of Brian's Adult World, carrying her duffel bag, tossing her hair behind her. Darlene noticed there was something different about her. She smiled and walked as though the next moment was worth getting to.
"Hey," Darlene said, lowering the window.
Lisa saw Darlene's Celica and walked over to it.
"Where's your car?" Darlene asked.
"Oh, the guys blocked me in at my house. So I'm walking."
"Do you want a ride?"
Lisa looked around, at Route 1, contemplating her options. "Okay." She shrugged her shoulders and got inside the car.
Darlene's car whined as she turned the ignition. Lisa pulled a cigarette out of her purse and lit it, thinking how awkward it was not to know what to say as Darlene pulled out onto Route 1.
"I got my Saturday night shift back," Lisa said.
"Look, I know you're mad at me-"
"I'm not mad at you. I just want you to admit that you're lying."
"Maybe you're lying."
"I'm not lying. I'm your best friend. Why would I lie to you?"
"Oh come on Darlene. Just tell me the truth."
"I am telling you the truth."
Darlene turned off Route 1 onto a road that led to the cul de sac where Lisa lived.
"What the hell is that?" Lisa asked, peering through the windshield. A giant pine tree had fallen, blocking the road, making it impossible for them to continue. "It's totally blocking the road."
"I can't get around it," Darlene said, stopping the car.
"Maybe we can drag it out of the road."
"Lisa, it's a tree."
"Let's just see."
They left the headlights on and got out of the car, stepping in front of the tree.
"It's so weird. It wasn't even windy," Lisa said.
Darlene walked toward the edge of the woods, trying to see if there was a way around it. "You might have to walk," she yelled to Lisa.
"Great." Lisa turned, heading back toward the car.
A loud scream cut sharply through the night. Lisa whipped around, looking at the edge of the road, where Darlene had just been a moment ago.
She stayed still, waiting for a response and then rushed over to the edge of the woods, looking for her best friend who was no longer there.