What We Talk About When We Talk About Aliens
Burns pauses, lets the sock drop onto his loafer, and lays down on the bed. He can hear Sarah in the bathroom, the shower shutting off and the water pick starting up. He has never gotten used to the high whine of the thing, especially so early in the morning, and the whole ritual just seems so…so Sarah. Too much, trying too hard, imposing on their shared space something that could only possibly benefit one of them. The sound mixes with her radio – the local modern country station pushing overproduced nostalgia around the room. After today, he thinks, he’ll never have to hear that kind of music again.
He looks around the room. Everything is the same as it’s been since the day they moved in: same bed, comforter, dressers, nightstands. He remembers arguing in Ikea, that in itself another cliché they had checked off along with all the rest of it, the jobs and the house and the happy hours and SUVs and vacations, the bills and debt and ladder-climbing.
But no more. Today he will make at least one change. He marvels at the idea – right now everything is the same. Soon it will all be different.
“Oh, sugar!” she says, and he sits up. He wonders if she’s dropped something. He liked her better, he thinks, when she used to swear. She turns up the volume on the radio and he can hear the DJ speaking in earnest tones. Sarah opens the door and she’s standing in a towel with her wet hair combed back and he wonders if he should try to have sex one last time instead of saying his little speech. But no, it is time.
“Did you hear that? Are you watching the television?” she says. She picks up the remote and Burns watches the swell of her breasts emerge and then retreat beneath the towel as she stands up and clicks. There are things he will miss but he has to do it today. Matt Lauer’s voice intones, “Again, this is real. This is not a joke. We have no word from the President, but obviously with a situation like this we expect to hear from him shortly.” On the screen, an image of a massive spaceship hovering over Washington, DC.
“Is this that fucking new Independence Day movie?” Burns says. Sarah makes a face but he is serious. It’s the only thing possible. “Come on,” he says, “that doesn’t even look real.” Typical Sarah getting all worked up over a marketing tie-in and a fake crack in some has-been newscaster’s voice. “It’s marketing. Jesus, Sarah.”
She shushes him – actually holds her finger up to her lips – and turns up the volume. He notices the way the towel clings to her body. She never did gain any weight, always held on to her runner’s body. He wonders about the next time he’ll have sex. It will be with somebody else and the idea is exciting and terrifying.
“Hey, we need to talk,” he says. There. It is done. Started.
She twitches at the sound in his voice and he is pleased with the recognition. After all this time, the promotions and the talk therapy and the marathons, the plush towels and expensive creams she orders from somewhere on the internet, the affirmations and church groups and night meetings that she just stopped even telling him about at some point, he can still summon that panicked look in her eyes.
Soon it will be over and they’ll be on to the next part. Maybe they’ll even stay friends, eventually, after all is said and done and divided and moved and they each settle into the rest of their lives.
“Jeez not now,” she says, pointing to the television and a reporter standing in front of the Washington Monument. Behind him, above him, everywhere, what looks like a massive spaceship hovers overhead like a series of clouds, like another sky somehow edging its way into the normal one. But there is no doubt that it is in fact a machine of some kind, with its piping and lights the rotating mushroom shaped openings that circle and pause, circle and pause. “Right now we do not know if they come in peace,” the reporter is saying. He is wearing a red raincoat, as if he expected to be standing in front of a low-grade hurricane. “All we know is similar ships have appeared all over the world.”
“Marketing?” Sarah says.
“Wait, change the channel,” Burns says. “This can’t…” The feeling in his gut like he is clicking up a roller coaster, waiting to crest the first big hill. This can’t be real. Not today. What does it mean? Is this adorable ET scrounging earth samples or War of the Worlds zapping people out of their basements?
Sarah changes over to CBS there is another reporter standing in what looks like nighttime Manhattan. “As you can see it is actually blocking the sun,” he says, glancing upward as if he expects something to rain down upon him any minute. “Blocking the entire sky.” Burns recognizes the reporter, a former wide receiver who is attempting the transition to newsperson. He is clearly shaken, also wearing rain gear. His hair is mussed and he is pale and unshaven and somehow these facts make Burns more nervous than anything he’s seen so far. “And we want to remind everybody wherever you are to stay inside, shelter in place, I believe is the phrase? Until…until…we expect the President, the government, the Army, America’s…somebody to making some kind of announcement any minute now maybe.” He swallows and looks again at the dark shape blotting out the sun. “Shelter in place,” he says.
Burns flashes on 9/11. He could see the Pentagon burning from his office in Northern Virginia. He had spent a terrifying few hours driving home through traffic, his cell phone not working, desperately trying to get in touch with Sarah, who was walking out of the District with thousands of other office workers.
Sarah sits down and puts a wet hand on his leg. She squeezes. Burns leans back. She smells the same as she always has – some lotion she puts on after the shower, vaguely perfumey with a citrus smell that used to drive him crazy but now just seems too sweet, not sweet enough, something.
“We should go to my parents,” she says.
“Did your parents move to Mars?” Burns says. He means it as a joke, light, but he has never been able to strike the right tone and Sarah just sighs and stands, goes into the closet to get changed. She closes the door and he wonders how long it’s been since she started doing that. The past few years, at least.
“I only meant that we’re close to DC and this thing is in DC. There’s probably not one in Cuyahoga County,” she shouts.
“So these work like Macy’s is what you’re thinking? They only invade the better markets.”
She walks out of the closet wearing jeans and a bra, holding a black shirt in her hands. “Really?” she says.
Burns wonders if he should tell her now, just get it out of the way. She is tucking her hair into a ponytail. “I’m going to Ohio,” she says, zipping up a duffel bag that has somehow been filled.
“How did you…” he says.
“You do whatever you want,” she says. “But I’m leaving.”
+ + +
One of them has fired. The radio says that Paris is burning, having been attacked in some way by one of the ships. Sarah turns up the radio. “Just fucking drive!” Burns says.
“Oh now you want to leave? Now you’re in a big effing hurry?” she says. It is the first thing she’s said since they packed all the nonperishables and anything that might pass as a weapon – the kitchen knives, their hammers, an aluminum baseball bat, the machete he’d bought to cut down the weeds in the back yard and never used – and headed out of town on what they thought would be one of the less crowded roads. Of course, the rest of the Maryland suburbs seems to have had the same idea, and they sit motionless on New Hampshire Avenue, staring at the back of an Xterra with a Maryland Lacrosse sticker and Virginia plates. Burns wonders if they’ve driven all the way from Virginia, how they got across the river, why they didn’t go South. Or maybe it’s just a license plate.
“It’s insane that this is how it’s actually going to end,” he says.
“Not for me,” Sarah says. She keeps her eyes on the road, her hands at ten and two, even though they are standing still while people walk or bike past them. Burns rolls his eyes. He remembers a long conversation they’d had with friends about the “zombie apocalypse,” how they had decided that Burns would be eaten first and Sarah would wind up leading the resistance. “And now it’s here,” he says.
“Hey,” she says, turning to him. “You gotta get your ess together if we’re going to get through this.” Her accent, the slightest midwestern hint. He used to love it and now it just sounds stupid to him – not strong enough to be cute, just pronounced enough to make her sound slightly backward. Maybe he has been living in DC for too long. Maybe if they get through this he’ll move to Key West, or the desert, or Big Sur. Maybe he’ll finally write the novel he talked about starting when they were first out of school.
It is a beautiful Spring day – eighty five and sunny. They are all just sitting there, moving a few feet every few minutes, honking horns and breathing exhaust and running gas. Every now and then a mother or a father knocks on the window to plead with them to pull aside, pointing at a crying toddler or a scared ten year old. Burns watches as another one approaches the car. He remembers the tapes he’d heard from Jonestown, people pleading to save the children or kill the children and most of them so deep into it at the end that they couldn’t even make a distinction between the two. At least they never had kids, he thinks, and wonders if she is thinking the exact opposite. She is calm, still. Too calm. “What’s going on inside your head?” he says.
“You don’t want to know,” she says.
He sits with that answer for a few seconds. “Actually I do,” he says.
He nods and returns his attention to the woman with the toddler. She is sitting on the side of the road now, crying and shaking. The toddler picks up a can and smells it. He puts it in his mouth. Burns wonders if he should help, what he would do, what helping another person in a situation like this even means. He thinks about those firemen running up the stairs of the Trade Center buildings, and for what?
“I’m praying,” Sarah says.
From far behind them they can hear crunching and explosions, little pops that might be guns or might be something else. Burns looks at the cooler he has packed, the boxes full of liquor and tee shirts and his CDs from college, the little scrapbook into which his mother had taped all his high school newspaper articles. Jesus he was stupid. Is stupid. They should have been on the road for Ohio as soon as they saw that image of that thing hovering over DC, should have left at the first quiver in Matt Lauer’s voice. He remembers that the ones who made it out of those towers were the ones who started out early, when they were still telling them all to stay at their desks, when people were still checking their email or getting coffee.
“You think we could cut over here,” he says. “Take Greenwood over to 97 and maybe that’s less…”
“You heard them on the radio,” she says.
“What? No, I…” he says. “I mean, does it matter?”
She just shakes her head and turns the radio up and he realizes he’s been listening to the President’s voice, had registered that the President was finally speaking, but hadn’t really connected with the words that were being said.
“Now is not the time to panic,” the President says. His voice is clear and forceful.
“I beg to disagree,” Burns says, and laughs.
Sarah just shakes her head, keeps her hands at ten and two, looks straight ahead as if that is going to make some kind of difference. Maybe he should do it now. Have the conversation. Get it over with while they’re sitting here waiting for the road to clear up or something to zip them all into nothingness.
For the first time he thinks about what it might be like to be stuck at Sarah’s parents’ house indefinitely. Packing the alcohol wasn’t so stupid after all.
They are still just sitting there. More and more people are walking, lugging suitcases or gym bags or plastic grocery bags. A family of eight walks by, the older children shunting the younger ones along. They are all blond, tall and good looking. Burns imagines they are one of those families with a naming convention, all of their first names beginning with the letter G: Gunnar, Gary, Gwendolin, Gene, Gillian, Gabby.
They move a few more feet. On the sidewalk, two boys, maybe ten years old, are on the ground, wrestling and punching. One of them connects with two rights to the head and the other rolls over and tightens into a ball. Two more boys come out of a house and start kicking him. There is blood gathering in a puddle around the boy’s head and he is motionless. Burns wonders if he should get out and help the boy, but the older children are almost as tall as he is and he’s not sure he would be able to defend himself. Sarah pulls the car ahead ten feet and he puts it out of his mind with the little thrill of seeing real violence churning in his gut.
He opens the window and sticks his head out the window. Cars as far as he can see in either direction, all of them stopped. Behind them, the boy remains motionless. The other children are just standing there. Adults walk by and nobody stops.
There is a change in the light, a steady hum getting stronger. He sits on the side of the window. “Get back in here,” Sarah says. She is calm and annoyed. Other people stop their cars, pop out of their windows or open doors and step out onto the road. Burns follows suit. The macadam feels strange under his feet, rocky and hot. Is this really happening? He turns with the crowd back toward the city and sees it, a massive ship moving toward them. It is larger than anything he has ever seen moving, like a building, or an entire block of them had simply tipped onto their side and floated up from K Street.
“Holy sugar,” Sarah says. She has gotten out of the car and stands next to him and he hadn’t even noticed. She is holding a gun in one hand and the machete in the other. Burns realizes that he’s holding his old scrapbook. What is Sarah going to do with a machete? “When did you get a gun?” he says.
“Don’t worry about it,” she says.
The ship has stalled and it hovers maybe fifty yards away. From this view Burns can see that it is old, the materials worn and battered, as if it had already gone through a few wars. It is marked with symbols – swooshes and figures and geometric shapes that glow and shift and change color. So Close Encounters was the most realistic alien movie, he thinks. And then, wouldn’t it be cool if they did that thing with the music, if that’s how this actually ended, with himself and a group of carefully chosen, intrinsically capable people walking on to this ship like heroes while Sarah and the rest of them look on, dropping their machetes and guns and hammers in embarrassment.
The white noise increases and there is a recoiling in the ship’s piping, something bunching and then preparing to release and before he can even register that something is happening a ball of blue light gathers beneath the ship and then shoots down onto the cars below. Burns sees the first explosion, registers fire and smoke and screams and then he is being pulled into motion and running alongside Sarah who shouts “move move move” and points toward a mall in the distance.
Burns struggles to keep up. His Achilles tendons have been bothering him lately and he has been considering giving up the gym altogether, the only thing keeping him going was the impending breakup and the idea that he would be thrust into the dating scene again. Now he pumps his arms and follows Sarah as she moves through the crowd, beckoning him forward and pointing with the machete. Where the hell did she get a gun? Why?
Behind them, explosions and screaming. Ahead, people pour into the mall entrance one at a time. He follows Sarah through the doors and pauses to catch his breath. He is wheezing and his legs shake. Sarah stalks down one side of the mall toward the Sears. The muzak is still on in the mall and he wonders if an instrumental version of “Life in the Fast Lane” is the last thing he will ever hear. Sarah slows and is looking for something and he thinks about asking what but he can’t catch his breath and can’t bring himself to admit it to Sarah. Not right now. In the distance, sirens and that terrible white buzz and people shouting, the sounds of footsteps in the mall, crashing glass, and the chorus to “Life in the Fast Lane:” surely make you lose your mind…
Sarah walks into a Hot Topic and Burns follows. She asks a young woman cowering behind the counter if she is an employee. The girl nods yes and Sarah speaks slowly: “We’re going to be okay. We’re going to make it out of this. But what you need to do right now is go close that gate,” she says, nodding to the storefront, where a metal grate hangs a few feet off the ceiling.
The girl follows her orders, shaky on her feet like a drunk. Burns wishes he had brought some whiskey, a six pack, the joint that’s been sitting in his junk drawer for the past few years. If this is the end, what’s the point of sobriety? If this is the end, what is the point of anything? It probably won’t hurt very much to be…whatevered…by one of those laser things. “So at least we have that going for us…which is nice,” he says, doing his best Bill Murray in Caddyshack.
The lights go out and the mall is dark and quiet for a moment. “You are going to have to get…your ess…together,” Sarah whispers. The sales girl sits up straighter. “Not you,” Sarah says, nodding her head toward Burns. The girl and Sarah share a look.
“Oh come on,” Burns says.
The white noise is gone and Burns realizes how loud it’s been, how quickly he had gotten used to the sound. Now there is nothing left but the mall music, a synthesizer version of “Moondance.”
“What the fuck…” Burns says, and then the explosions start, quick bursts coming from above, shaking the ceiling.
Burns remains standing and can see the center of the mall giving way, the concrete and insulation and whatever else faltering, the sun peeking through the hole and then completely blotted out by the massive spaceship hovering above. Sarah grabs him by the shoulders and pulls him under the counter. Burns flashes back to playing hide and seek as a kid, sitting in the little storage area under the stairs. The smell of paint and dust. The clerk is shaking, blubbering, her face twisted into ugly contortions. Her hair is blond and she will be pretty when she grows up but right now she is just a kid, probably not even old enough to drive. For the first time, Burns is sad – sad for all the things this poor girl is going to miss. Burns has had his firsts, his paltry achievements and little defeats, his clippings cut out and pasted into a book by his mother. But this girl, tucked into a ball and crying uncontrollably, jabbering “I don’t like this I don’t like this” – she is not even going to live long enough to find true, adult discontentment.
“Hey,” Sarah says, putting her hand on the girl’s face, wiping away her tears. “Hey!”
The girl shakes her head and sits up. Burns doesn’t dare stand up but he can hear a different sound inside the mall now, voices speaking in a language that he has never heard, in a robotic, chilling tone. Along with the voice, little explosions – a zip and then a shout or an exhalation, a quick explosion and then silence and the muzak. There is a businesslike quality to it, an efficiency that is truly terrifying.
He hears a buzzing, perhaps a small engine getting closer. Sarah sits up straight, holds the gun by her ear like a cop in a B movie, and looks around the corner. Burns is just about to make a remark – it really is a bit much, the pose and the gun and the whole Sigourney Weaver in Alien bit – when she stands and starts firing. There is a scream and then the retreat of the engine and she sits back down, nods at the sales girl. "We’re going to be okay,” she says.
The air smells of gunpowder and something else, something industrial – metal and smoke and dust and something he can’t name. It is quiet again in the store. The muzak continues: what a marvelous night for a moondance with the stars up above in your eyes… Out in the mall the efficient explosions and the white noise and the screams continue. They are saved but only for now. He wonders where Sarah got the gun, when she started changing in the closet, eating differently and going to church and watching the goddam Big Bang Theory. He has missed something, something big and slow, a tectonic shift.
Burns hears the buzzing again, louder now, two or three or four engines getting closer. He weighs the hammer in his hand. Useless. Sarah holds the pistol. Her face is unafraid. He notices that she is wearing brand new Nikes that he’s never seen before – black, with swirls around the swoosh, the kind of thing she would have brushed off as too showy only a few years ago. They have grown so distant. All of the sudden it hits him, all of the things add up and he knows with certainty what has been happening. “Wait a minute,” he says, but he is so sure of it he almost doesn’t have to say anything. “Are you…”
“They’re coming,” she says. She holds the gun at the ready. “They’re almost here.”
About the Writer
Dave Housley’s fourth collection of short fiction, “Massive Cleansing Fire,” was published in February 2017 by Outpost 19 books. His first novel, "This Darkness Got to Give," will be published in Fall 2017 by Pandamoon Publishing. His work has appeared in Hobart, McSweeneys, Mid-American Review, Wigleaf, and some other places. He’s one of the founding editors at Barrelhouse Magazine . Sometimes he drinks boxed wine and tweets about the things on his television at @housleydave.