AREA 52

By James Miller

Today, we finally reached the much anticipated San Luis valley. For weeks we’ve been watching the footage on YouTube of the UFO, as Jake sees it, or just the weird lights in the sky, as I keep telling him. You have to admit, Jake says, it’s freaky. I agree, it’s abnormal. Jake is more convinced because the valley is the number one place in the whole country, maybe even the world, for UFO sightings and abductions. It’s not a coincidence, he says, there’s hardly anyone here who hasn’t seen a UFO or had some sort of ‘contact.’ Jake tells me that according to the experts on the ‘forum’ it has something to do with lots of fresh water wells in the valley, but I don’t see what fresh water wells have to do with UFOs or why aliens from other worlds would care so much either way. They’ve got spaceships, right?

Later

We stop for the night at a Motel 6 near the interstate, a few miles out of Alamosa. I have a shower and when I come out, Jake’s on his mobile. He’s standing in the car park, phone jammed to the side of his head. I stand in the doorway with a towel wrapped around myself and watch him walk and talk. He’s too far for me to make out any words clearly and what I can hear is constantly drowned out by trucks on the Interstate, but he seems animated, striding this way then back again, making gestures as he speaks. He realizes I’m watching him and ends the call. Who was that? I ask. No-one, he says. Then, I phoned the credit card company. His expression darkens. You know I hate that. Show me the number, I say. I’m not showing you the number, he says. I know he’s lying. He called Caitlin. I can tell by his face, by the sort of glassy expression he assumes when he’s on the defensive, the way his little eyes won’t settle on anything, least of all me. I know I’m right, but decide not to push the issue. It’s like my therapist tells me: take a deep breath then stop, think and take your time.

We go to a drive thru Taco Bell and return to the motel. Jake wants to watch the footage again. We sit in front of the lap-top. The two minute clip has now had over a million YouTube hits. I’ve seen it so many times, I know everything that happens: first, nothing, just the night, the dark smear of the road and the low houses. A single porch light above a front door. Then, after a bit, a glow in the sky; at first it’s quite faint, like a slightly brighter than normal star and for a while it’s like this and then, suddenly, it gets much, much brighter, almost like a flare, but it’s too focused, too fast. Do you see that, says Jake. Yes, I see it. The light splits into four smaller lights and these lights then hover, yes, that’s right, they hover in the black sky for ten seconds or so and then slowly descend to the ground, or rather disappear, one apparently landing some distance behind the nearest house, the others moving from view. It’s very hard to tell exactly what is or is not happening. On the footage, silent up to this point, we hear a man exclaim, “Sweet Jesus!” A woman starts to answer him but then it ends. Jake winds it back to the moment when the single light explodes into four and pauses the footage. Would you look at that, he says again. The light is very bright, the footage grainy. I lick sauce from my fingers. It’s often this way.

When Jake is finally asleep, I check his phone. He’s deleted all recent calls. I’m sure there is a way around, a better way, but it’s late and I can’t think.

The next day…

The old guy says this is where the UFO landed. He’s Mexican or something like that and has a red baseball cap pulled low over his eyes, which are narrow and squinty in the sun. We’re in a field behind a house on the outskirts of town. Jake’s convinced it’s the house we saw on the footage, but I’m not so sure. The house is part of a recent development of ‘Ranch Houses’ built around dead end streets. Most are unsold, some unfinished, just the foundations sticking out of the earth. Construction company went bust, I imagine, same as everywhere. I wonder if Jake would like to live here. For a minute I think he would but then no, I guess he probably wouldn’t. He gets restless. That’s why he moved to California from Oklahoma City. That and the tornados. One pulled the roof off the condo where he used to live. He said he hid under the bed as it happened and that he was fortunate, because he lived on the ground floor. I laugh and say he swapped tornados for earthquakes. We used to talk about this stuff. I said I’d take a tornado any day but he said, wait until one destroys your home. That’s why I met him the first place, because he kept coming to the coffee shop, because he had to do something, had to go somewhere. He had just lost his home. He says he’s more settled now, but he isn’t settled.

The old man takes us into the scrubland behind the development. It’s tough, the country out here, empty wastes of silvery grass and dusty grey soil and in the distance, hanging in the sky like clouds, hazy mountains with snowy tops. The air is crisp, but the sun feels hot. It was over there, says the man. They kill our cattle. He spits on the ground. His face is worn and brown like a pair of old shoes. They suck all the blood out the cattle, he continues, with gestures, and they leave the bodies behind, just skin, just like a peeled banana. He makes a peeling motion. I worry about how much Jake is going to pay him, if this is the right thing to do. I think not. The guy could be telling us any old crap. Here? says Jake. Look at the ground, says the old man, can’t you see it? Jake gets out his camera. His pride and joy, he says. If there was a fire… he says. All I can see are tyre tracks, I tell him, dusty tyre tracks. The old man says something about scorch marks but I’m tired of this. Jake points the camera at the ground and starts photographing the dirt. I want to be sitting down, drinking an ice cold coke.

Later

You might think, listening to all this, that I don’t believe. But no.

I believe.

Later

I grew up on a smallholding north of Eureka. When I was sixteen I saw a light coming from behind the barn. I can’t remember where Dad was, gone on one of his binges probably. Mom was watching TV, I imagine. I could see the light from my room and it spread until it seemed to fill the world – an endless, emerald green light. I remember that I couldn’t move. I was caught in the tractor beam. They told me I was in their spaceship and that I shouldn’t be afraid. Their voices sounded a bit like wind-chimes, but I could understand the meaning of what they were saying quite clearly. I think they had an English accent. At least, it reminded me of one of those old actors I used to see on TV. They told me not to be frightened. It’s hard to say just what they looked like. Everything was vibrating. I’m not sure if I want to say what they did to me.

It’s not that I don’t believe. Oh no. I believe.

The next day

Why did you call Caitlin? For some reason, I decide breakfast is a good time to bring this up. Jake is pouring maple syrup over his pancakes. He stops what he’s doing and gives me his glassy look. As if I’m here and not here. Just leave it Meg, he says. He only calls me Meg when he’s serious. I love you Meg, he’s most likely to say in a moment. You weren’t calling the bank. The credit card company, he interrupts, I was calling American Express. You could at least tell me the truth, I snap back. You could at least tell me if you’re calling her instead of lying to me. What kind of man are you? You could tell me the truth, I wouldn’t mind. I know what I’m saying isn’t true. I would mind. I mind like hell. I have that hot metal taste in my mouth. I hope I’m not going to get a migraine.

You haven’t eaten any breakfast, he says, gesturing at my ham and eggs with his fork. I’m not hungry, I say. I think I’ve got a lead on the people who took the footage, he says. I don’t respond. The waitress brings us a coffee refill. We’re looking in the wrong place, he says a bit later. I put on my sunglasses and stare out the window. I can see the Taco Bell and a Subway. The parking lot is mostly empty apart from a couple of Mexican guys standing around near the bins, waiting for something. Trucks keep hurtling by on the Interstate and the air is full of faint grey dust. The sky is such an intense blue, even with my glasses on, it hurts my eyes. We’re closer to the heavens, out here. The sky isn’t so far away.

Later

Jake has been corresponding with other UFO fanatics or “ufologists” as they like to call themselves and is following a couple of leads. The leads have sent us out to this tiny town – really just a cluster of clapboard shacks, a few remote farms and a gas station strung out along the highway. The landscape is flat and dusty and the sky is so clear and empty, it’s almost abstract, like the idea of ‘blue’ before blue was invented. Out there, past the fields, there’s a national park with sand dunes that stretch hundreds of feet high. I tell Jake that we’re wasting our time. We won’t find anything, we won’t see anything, but Jake ignores me and tries to wipe dust from the camera lens.

When we get signal, his phone starts to buzz with in-coming texts. I’m sure some of them are from Caitlin. The migraine I hoped wouldn’t come comes: a wobbly haze clouding around the edges of my vision and a feeling like fingers boring into either side of my skull. I remember the green light, the way I couldn’t move.

Apparently some Mexicans took away a bit of the UFO, Jake tells me. He’s all excited. They thought it was a fragments of a satellite or something like that and want to sell the scrap metal. Uh-huh, I say. I guess this is what the “ufologists” on the forum have been saying. Ninety-nine per cent of the forum is bullshit.

We drive around some more. I have to close my eyes to get rid of the floaters. The migraine intensifies. My vision gets as foggy as a steamy car window.

Jake stops to speak to a couple of guys selling peaches from the back of a pick-up. Estamos buscando las luces en el, um, in el cielo? They shake their heads and exchange a look that says, is this dude crazy or what? Jake’s phone vibrates – someone is calling him – but he kills the call. Who was that? I want to know. Someone I didn’t want to speak to. He makes a big deal of turning the car round, pulling the wheel, aggressively yanking the stick back and forth. We drive the way we came, his phone between his legs. Let me see the number, I say. Give me a break, he says. It’s Caitlin isn’t it? Tell me. He gives a slight nod with his head and grinds his teeth. Why is she calling? I don’t know Meg. Sometimes she calls. What am I meant to do? I don’t answer that. It’s hard to argue with the migraine invading my head. Can we go back to the motel? I say. I need to lie down. I don’t speak all the way back, just slump in my seat like a dead person and leave it up to Jake to worry about how upset I am. He feels guilty, I can tell. He puts a hand on my knee to try and make me feel better. With a sigh, I swat him away.

Later

I close the blinds and lie on the bed, arm over my eyes. What do you want me to do? says Jake. Just go away. I can sense him, hanging around, like a dog that feels guilty after plundering the garbage. He’s waiting for me to give him a sign that I’m not angry about Caitlin calling, but I am angry. He can suffer. I lie on the bed. He checks his email and says he’s been sent the name and address of another farmer whose cattle keep being killed under mysterious circumstances. He tries to show me a couple of pictures, but I tell him the screen is too bright, it’s playing havoc with my floaters. Jakes says he’s going to check it out but he hangs around some more. I know he’s waiting for me to give him a smile and say something like, I love you, but I don’t. I’m not doing that. Shouldn’t you be going? I ask. Finally, I’m left alone. I wait until I hear Jake drive off and then I get up and drink several glasses of water. My migraine has almost entirely disappeared. Take a deep breath and think.

I open Jake’s laptop and resume trying to crack the access password. I’ve been trying for a few weeks now. One way or another, I’ll get to the bottom of it. I try the name of his first pet (which I only recently got him to reveal to me). No. His high school. No. His favourite band. No. His mother’s maiden name. No. His mother’s name. No. UFO. No (I’ve tried that before, I admit). ET. No. Star Trek. No. Star Wars. No. Jedi. No. Aliens (I must have tried that before). No. I stop a moment.

After they’d finished with me, the aliens, they left me in a field a couple of miles from home. I remember waking up wet with a sore head like I’d drank a whole bottle of JD and a sharp pain between my legs, dried blood down there and crusted over my thighs. Thirty six hours had passed and my Mom had reported me missing to Sherriff Cooper. For days afterwards it hurt when I peed and my period was over a month late. When it came it was so heavy and painful that I sometimes wonder, thinking back, if I was having a miscarriage. Maybe they gave me a half-human, half-alien baby? I was so young then. There were these odd burn marks on my clothes and a strange red circle, like a tattoo but not, at the top of my left arm. It’s about the size of a dime. When I first showed it to Jake he got really excited. Apparently, a lot of abductees have it. We’ve been ‘branded’ like cattle, he says. A DNA harvest. Well.

Then it comes to me. Area 51. I’m in! Laptop unlocked. The thing is I’ve long suspected Jake has secret email conversations with Caitlin. They’re corresponding all the time, I’m sure of it. He’s probably calling her right now, with me out the way. I’ve also thought he must have pictures of her, photos stashed on the laptop, or somewhere. I told him he had to delete them all. He said he did, but I know he didn’t.

The password for his Gmail is different. Think Meg, think. I take a deep breath. What would my therapist do? I type Caitlin. No joy. I try a couple more, but still nothing. I guess cracking one code is good enough for today. Instead, I start to search his laptop for pictures of her or of them, together. I’ll get to the bottom of this. I don’t feel bad doing what I’m doing. Not at all. Already I think through what I’ll say to Dr Adams, how I’ll explain to her the way I was feeling and why I did this. There’s a lot of shit on his machine and it takes a while. I look up and realise the light has changed. An amazing, beautiful pink sunset bathes the room in a gentle, rosy glow. I take a moment to look outside. A couple of pick-up trucks and an SUV are parked near the motel entrance and I can see a few guys standing around, talking to each other. Several keep pointing to the back of one of the pick-ups. My phone buzzes. A message from Jake. You won’t believe this, it says. A picture message arrives. A photo of a dead cow. The bottom half of the cow is just bones. Another text. Something melted half a cow! U see? Weird, I guess. I decide not to reply. I’m clicking through Jake’s photo albums. I’m on one entitled ‘Sightings 3.’ It mostly consists of pictures he’s taken of suspicious lights in the sky. Most of the pictures don’t show anything. A few interesting clouds, that’s all. Jake’s never seen shit. I can hear the men outside, arguing in Spanish, but I pay them little mind. I keep clicking. Blue sky; blue sky; moon; vapour trail; stars; nothing at all; nothing; more stars; sunlight through clouds; Caitlin.

I knew it. I fucking knew it.

Caitlin.

She’s wearing a white vest top that shows off her breasts and she’s smiling. Her arms are skinny and tanned. She’s so much prettier than I am, it’s no wonder Jake is sometimes disgusted by me. Click. In the next picture, she’s taken off her vest top. She’s not wearing a bra and her breasts are bigger than mine; firm, round and paler than the rest of her with nipples like milk chocolate discs. My face feels like it’s on fire. In the next picture she’s squeezing her tits together to make them look even larger and she’s sticking her tongue out as if to say ‘I’m a dirty little bitch.’ In the following snap she’s lying back in the bed, one hand pushing her white g-string aside to give a glimpse of the pink between her legs. In the one after that she’s got something in her mouth – the angle is odd and the quality is not great – but I realise it must be Jake’s stinky, dirty cock. My face is burning but I keep going through, all the way to the end, when Caitlin has a big smile and she’s holding Jake’s dripping cock, trails of cum all over her tits and lips.

I close the file and slam shut the laptop. Well, I think. Well I never. I knew this to be the case. I knew it. Being right gives me a sharp burn of satisfaction. There will be hell to pay for this, I think. Hell to pay. I wonder if I should keep quiet or confront Jake directly, the moment he comes back to find his lap-top open, a photo of his cum-smeared lover smiling back at him. Stop and breathe.

I decide to leave the room. Don’t think about Caitlin. Go outside. The air is surprisingly cool for June and I remember Jake saying how we’re nearly ten thousand feet up. That’s high. The men I saw earlier haven’t left. They’re still standing around the pick-ups and the SUV, having some sort of argument. They all stop, when I come out, and look at me in the way men do. I don’t really care. One of them, a boy who I guess must be about twelve or thirteen, starts to wave at me. Senora, senora, he shouts, come, look! He’s pointing to something in the back of the pick-up. Look, come. It’s probably just a Mexican scam, I think, but I go over anyway. The men stop and watch. Look, see, says the boy. He has a runny nose and a gap between his middle teeth. Look, senora, you won’t believe it! There is something covered in a dirty blanket in the back of the pick-up and dusty smears of what looks like oil over the sides. I get a whiff of rotten eggs, the bad smell lingering and small flies crawling across the warm metal hulk of the truck. I flinch and try to wave them away. Extranjeros, says one of the men in a thick accent. Hombre del espacio. One of the men climbs into the back of the pick-up. His clothes also smeared with black oil. He grins at me. You want to look? You want to see? He pulls away the blanket. Underneath is a black, twisted body about the size of a ten year old, but it’s all burnt-up, the gender lost, weird and warped like a charcoal sculpture of a little man. You see? They’re all shouting things at me, in Spanish and English. No photo, says the boy. Then, you want it, you take? Ten thousand dollars! I don’t have any money, I tell him. I look at the body again, if that’s what it is, because it looks more like an assemblage of burnt sticks pulled from a fire. The smell is horrible and I brush flies from my face. The men keep shouting.

After a while I go back to the motel. Eventually, I hear the Mexicans leave. I don’t know where they’re going. I lie on the bed and wait for Jake to come back.

o          o          o

JAMES MILLER

is the author of ‘Lost Boys’ and ‘Sunshine State’. His new book, a collection of interlinked short stories called ‘UnAmerican Activities‘ is available now, published by Dodo Ink.

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