Later, when asked to speak about what happened for the second time, Harlen recalled that it was in fact a single object, faint and blurry one second, close and vibrant the next. It hovered overhead: two blazing parallel rods, about a hundred feet across, connected by a transparent, egg-shaped disk that expanded and collapsed like an inflating and deflating balloon. There was a lot of pressure, as if giant hands were pushing down on his shoulders and scalp. “As soon as my knees gave, the pressure left and what I saw changed. I mean, I didn’t blink or turn my head. I was standing on I-65 on a summer’s night and then I was somewhere else, like the highway was a curtain and someone pulled it off.”
No matter how many times the locals pressed him, he didn’t remember seeing cows, horses, or farm equipment. There were no dislodged stopped signs, traffic lights, or car hoods floating about. A sterile, ammoniac smell pervaded. The interior, slightly see-through, dimmed to silver, then brightened to orange. His first impression was the vastness. Either he was shrunken down or the interior was expanded. He only saw two objects. A few yards in front of him, a chicken bobbed its head. In the distance, barely visible, his father was riding away on a motorcycle. Harlen ran, but he couldn’t even reach the chicken. He was running in place, though it didn’t feel like he was running in place.
“How’d you know it was your father?” a farmer asked. He wore a red netted cap with a colorful button on it that read: 2nd Place Horse, County Fair 2010.
“Because I was out on I-65 following my dad.” Harlen didn’t tell them his mother had thrown a jar of pickles at his father that night. He didn’t say that his father, after shattering a plate, had threatened, like he had always done, to leave for good. A year ago, Harlen had caught his father at a rest stop twenty miles from their house and convinced him to come home.
“So there was a chicken,” another farmer said. “And the thing was larger than a football field. If you add the two together, there’s a good chance other animals are up there.”
Through the stained-glass window of the town hall, the moon loomed a melted, buttery blue.
“Could be. I didn’t see any.”
“Do you think you might’ve just been in some kind of large warehouse?” a woman on the far side of the room asked, speaking for the first time. “Like, it wasn’t some kind of abnormal place at all? Like, the people who stole our stuff took you there and drugged you and you were just seeing things.”
Harlen shrugged. “Could be. Felt pretty real, though.” The police had asked him a similar question, and he had said the same thing.
“All right, folks,” Deputy Skiddy said. “That’s enough for one night. Let the kid get some rest.”
Skiddy had been the one who saw him lying on the side of the highway. Harlen had his arms and legs spread wide. He was lucky a semi didn’t amputate his limbs, Skiddy said. The Deputy took him to the station and questioned him. Afterwards, he asked if Harlen could come back tomorrow and talk to some people at the town hall.
“What I don’t get is why you pulled over in the first place,” Skiddy said, after the town hall session concluded.
They were on their way back to Harlen’s house. Harlen sat next to Skiddy, which made him feel like they were partners. Even the deputy of a deputy, he figured, had to have the power to order his father to come home.
“You were on your pop’s tail,” Skiddy continued. “That part I get. And in the middle of it you just stop and pull to the side? Why?”
“I guess I was getting sleepy.”
Skiddy chuckled. “Well, you’ve sure had one hell of a nap.”
Harlen stared out the window. Among the smoky clouds there was something blinking. He stretched his neck and peered up through the slit. The wind blew his hair back and made his eyes water. The light was from a plane or water tower, something familiar.
When he came home, his mother was clipping her toenails and watching The Good Wife on CBS. A tuna sandwich and a bag of chips were on the coffee table, and she pushed the plate in his direction. He sat down on the couch, took a bite, and reached for the remote.
“You don’t have to do what they tell you, you know,” his mother said. “The police can’t force you to talk to anyone.”
“I don’t mind.”
He wouldn’t admit it, but he liked when older people talked to him. A junior in high school, he hung out with two boys who wore their hair long and were always asked not to lean back in their seats. They liked to get stoned and climb stuff: rooftops, balconies, billboards. One time, Harlen climbed up the tall walnut tree in front of their school and stayed there the entire night. The next morning, the principle recited a line from the bible: So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him, for He was about to pass that way. There was no tone of reprimand, and Harlen liked that he was supposed to know what the passage meant, even though he didn’t.
“What did they ask you this time?”
“Mostly the same things. The strange part was they wanted to know if there were other animals up there besides the chicken, if the place was large enough to hide cows.”
His mother laughed. She grabbed two ruffled potato chips and put them on the side of her head. “Give me all your animals and farm equipment.” She spoke in a high-pitched, leprechaun-like voice. “Our planet, with all its space-faring technology, is in grave need of some quality beasts of burden.”
“You don’t believe me.”
“Sweetie, the problem isn’t me not believing you. It’s not even that other people won’t believe you. It just seems so strange. Your father, riding his motorcycle in there?”
He regretted telling her about seeing his father. He had hoped that she’d be worried. Last night, when he had come home, she had hugged him and said, “It’s a good thing the police found you.” She made no mention of his father, even though Harlen could tell she wasn’t angry anymore. She was like that: funny and forgiving one minute, deadpan and merciless the next. She made his father leave because of dishes—dirty saucers soaking in the sink.
“Maybe dad’s still up there,” Harlen said.
He got up and took his plate to the kitchen. His mother followed him. He threw out the potato chip wrapper and squeezed a droplet of detergent onto a sponge.
Crossing her arms, his mother leaned on the fridge. “Sweetie, your dad’s somewhere far away, but he’s definitely not up there.” She glanced at her watch. “Well, almost ten. My shift’s starting soon.”
She went to the bedroom and came back wearing her blue V-neck nurse’s scrubs. The car keys jingled in her hands as she leaned in and pecked him on the cheek.
“Smile a little, sweetie,” she said. “Don’t be so serious all the time, or you’ll end up just like your dad. It’s not everyday someone survives an alien abduction!”
Harlen couldn’t quite figure it out himself. Why would extra-terrestrials steal farm animals and street signs and then abduct him and his father? Why did they return him and not release the animals? Did they still have his dad? He imagined they were catalogers of the galaxy, taking things back to a museum on their home planet. Exhibit A: Earth. In the left display, we have some street signs and vehicle parts. Earthlings use these to travel small distances on their tiny world. In the center panel, we have some more interesting specimens: animals that the earthlings have subjugated. They either eat them or parade them around. Lastly, to our right, we see the most interesting display we have: a recording of a young earthling and an older one who shares half of the young one’s DNA. We aren’t sure what they’re doing. The young one chases the old one, but the old one doesn’t care. Our top earthologists have tried to unravel what’s going on, but without any success.
Harlen yawned, and took another toke of his British Columbian bud. He didn’t smoke in his room often, but he figured that even if his mom came home and noticed the smell, she’d give him a pass this time. He thought about all the abduction stories he’d heard: one where aliens gave a woman an abortion, another where they inserted a long needle into a man’s earlobe, and one where they made two summer camp counselors seek psychiatric help for the rest of their lives. All the abductees seemed to share a feeling of violation, either being probed, dissected, or lobotomized. His experience, on the other hand, felt liberating, as if the irrelevant parts of his life faded away and it was just him and his father.
Well—and the chicken.
He wished they would have kept him up there, stashed away with their hoard of intergalactic miscellany, oscillating to the other side of the universe. He wouldn’t mind being part of an exhibition with his dad.
His father, his mother often said, was a serious man who refused to do serious things. When it came to the nonessentials—owning a motorcycle, playing bass guitar in a band, keeping his face in a persistent, resigned frown—he was serious. Getting a job that made consistent money, on the other hand, was beneath his significance. Harlen thought this was awfully unfair of his mother, who didn’t love her husband enough to accept his flaws. When his dad was around, every cent he made, either from tips at a bar or a performance at a wedding, he gave to the family. He used his first royalty check to buy Harlen’s mother a crystal pendant from Swarovski’s. Often he gave Harlen an eighth to split with his friends.
Harlen turned on his cell phone, dialed “dad,” and waited until the voicemail finished.
* * *
A waylaying, the farmers called it. An attempt at ascertaining validity, establishing communication, perhaps even retrieval. They wanted to set up “red zones” of probable attack. New stop signs with hidden cameras were installed at T-intersections. Bulls were left to graze on knolls away from the herd as bait. A rusty motocross bike was parked a mile from where Harlen was abducted, its rider an oversized teddy bear.
After Harlen’s abduction, there’d been two more strange instances of thievery. Farmer McDowell’s scarecrow, long since retired, vanished clean off the ground. McDowell claimed that he saw a glimpse of a gigantic sandwich-like object floating outside his house. What considerably increased police involvement, though, was the disappearance of a propeller from a wind turbine four miles up from town. The sheriff hired special deputies who worked for the power plant. Together with Skiddy and the new officers, along with a check from EDP Renewables North America, the sheriff’s department rallied victims and drew up plans for Operation Waylay.
“I still think we’re jumping the gun here,” the woman from the back said. “Why don’t we exhaust all plausible scenarios before we conclude that God doesn’t exist and aliens stole our stuff?”
The crowd began to murmur. There were twenty-two of them gathered among the pews of the town hall, which had been converted from an Episcopal church in the 1960s. Harlen observed that if they’d been carrying pitchforks and torches, they might as well have been going after Dracula.
“That propeller weighed twenty tons.” The farmer wearing the red cap, whose name Harlen learned was Dennis, pointed a gray, flaky finger at the woman. “It takes three cranes to lift and install. A stadium-full of high school troublemakers couldn’t pull off a prank like that in a million years.”
“There are Magicians in this world who’ve done much more unbelievable acts. Don’t mean they’re not trying to pull a blanket of lies over your eyes.”
After the woman said this, the people inside divided into two groups, those standing behind Dennis and those behind the woman. Harlen stood to the side, next to Skiddy and the special deputies.
“Now folks,” Skiddy said, scratching his head with his deputy’s cap in his hand. “Nobody here is saying God doesn’t exist. Nobody’s even saying we’re going out and looking for aliens. This is Operation Waylay, everybody, not Operation ET-slay.”
“Jesus would be ashamed at the nonbelievers in this holy room.” The woman’s fist shook with anger. “All of you looking up at the sky with your cameras and tape recorders and Ipads, searching, not for Him, but for some pagan, horse-stealing deity riding around in a water balloon.”
The folks behind her nodded and started yelling.
“Now look here,” Dennis shouted back. “I’ve gone to church for as long as I could—”
Harlen stepped forward and pounded on the back of a pew until everyone stopped talking. “Luke 19:4—So he ran ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him, for He was about to pass that way.” He glanced behind at Skiddy. “My dad might still be up there. We want a better view, that’s all. A better angle.”
This got everyone to settle down again. Skiddy and the other officers assigned people their red-zone stations for the night and gave them guns that shot out sticky tracking balls. Harlen got to choose his station, and he picked the one with Dennis. Among all the stations, it had the most unique bait—a pair of llamas–and believing the aliens would want something different to go in their collection, Harlen figured that it had the greatest chance for contact.
After hearing about the missing propeller, his mother dialed his father’s cell phone three times and called the nightclubs in Nashville and New Orleans where he’d performed. She tried his mother in Vermont, and when the old lady said that he wasn’t there and asked whether she should be worried, Harlen’s mother paused for a second, and said no, that they were just having another fight. Then she sat back on the sofa, let her arms fall to her side, and started to cry.
“You couldn’t have driven a little faster that night? You couldn’t have tried to actually catch up to him?”
Harlen hugged his mother. He was glad that she believed him, and that she was finally worried. “Sorry. It’s all my fault.”
She wiped her eyes on the sleeves of her nurse’s scrubs. “No, sweetie. I shouldn’t have said that. We should take you to a doctor, get you checked.” She stood and pulled Harlen up. “Let me take a look at you.” She lifted his t-shirt, pressed the spots right below his ribs, and extended his arms to examine his armpits.
“Mom, I’m OK. They didn’t do anything to me, I’m sure. I’m sure they wouldn’t do anything to dad, either.”
“Maybe you’re right.” She sat back down. “Maybe your dad’s not even up there anymore.” She fidgeted with her name tag, fogging it up with her breath, and then wiped it down with the fat of her palm.
“Yeah, they probably don’t keep humans at all,” he said. “I mean, look at me. I’m still here. The farmers who got their stuff stolen are having a waylaying tonight. Chances are nothing will come out of it, but it’s better than sitting around.”
He wasn’t sure if he believed in the waylaying himself. What chance did they really have in sighting a spaceship, much less tagging one with a tracking ball? Still, maybe he was wrong for doubting. After all, the aliens were interested in street signs and turbine propellers. How would anyone know what type of Earth technology they found compelling, what type they were susceptible to?
“You should come,” he said. “At the very least I think it’ll make you feel better.”
His mother looked up. “They’re having a what?”
The spot Dennis picked out was a clearing behind his farm where his grandma had once played softball. The area hadn’t been used in decades, and it had become dense with tall grass and wildflowers. A column of cypress trees, the moonlight peeking through their highest branches, lined up like manikin-sentries and marked the end of Dennis’s land. As Harlen waded through the brush following the old farmer, who was pulling on the llamas, foliage grazed his calves, jutted up his shorts, and brushed against his thighs.
“Would’ve done you better to wear jeans,” Dennis said, giving his overalls a hard smack.
From his pocket he took out a can of mosquito repellant and handed it to Harlen. Then he dragged the llamas to the center of the clearing and waved Harlen over.
“Hold on to the leashes for a second,” he said.
As soon as Harlen gripped the ropes, the llamas bolted, sending him face-first into a patch of jagged grass.
“Whoa, there!” Dennis laughed.
He grabbed the ropes before the animals could get away and together they pulled them back to the center of the clearing.
“Strong little suckers, aren’t they?”
Harlen brushed off his clothes with one hand. He would’ve been embarrassed if the old farmer wasn’t enjoying his misfortune so much.
“Knew I should’ve picked the teddy bear group,” he said.
“I thought there was supposed to be another one of you coming.”
“My mom’s on her way. She’s trying to get off work.”
She had also said that she should call grandma again and tell her about the situation. He would’ve gotten his stoner friends to come, too—they’d have enjoyed this—but they were all vacationing with their families.
Dennis stepped on a patch of ground until the grass bent down. He took out a steel stake from his toolbox and began hammering it into the smoothed-out spot. The llamas gurgled and tried to stumble away, but Harlen was ready this time, yanking their leashes back.
“Why’d you pick llamas?”
“They look like aliens.” Dennis grinned. “No, it’s ’cause I don’t want to lose another horse.” He took off his red cap and exchanged it for the leashes. “It says second place but it really should’ve said first. My Dolly is a magnificent stallion. The same age as my daughter, who passed away before Dolly won his first race. The horse was supposed to be hers, you know, when she was old enough to ride.” The old man grew quiet for a second, tying the leashes around the stake. “Anyway, my Dolly had a temper like most stallions but also had a soft side he’d share with people he knew. He’d kick off my son because the boy didn’t like horses but he’d let my eight-year-old girl ride on him for as long as she wanted. He was smart like that, knew who appreciated him. Every time I touched the spot between his eyes, he’d nicker like a kitten.”
They moved to a spot between the cypress trees where the llamas were in clear view. Harlen took the camera that Deputy Skiddy gave him, set it so that it’d take a picture whenever it detected a dramatic change in light, and taped it on a tree branch above him. Dennis leaned the tracking rifle on the trunk. Then they squatted in the brush and waited.
“Maybe the aliens took him because they knew Dolly was special.”
Dennis nodded. “Let me tell you: That was the best horse in the world. These aliens, whatever they are, they’re cherry-pickers.”
Harlen pictured the aliens in their cockpit with a guidebook on horses. “What about that one?” one of them asked, pointing a long pale finger at a mare on the wobbly image screen. “Receding mane,” the other would say, “a sign of illness.”
After about an hour, a bright pair of lights appeared in the woods beyond the clearing. Harlen shook Dennis awake, and the two of them stood up.
“That there it?”
“I don’t think so,” Harlen said. “Not bright enough, and not in the sky.”
The lights dimmed, changed to a single beam, and a moment later Deputy Skiddy came out of the woods waving a flashlight. When the beam passed by their spot in the cypress, the camera went off. Harlen removed the print from the polaroid and saw a blinded, startled Skiddy in the photo. Dennis waved.
“First alien of the night,” he said.
“How are you two holding up in here?” Skiddy asked.
“Nothing so far,” Harlen said. “What about the other spots?”
“Nothing.” Skiddy shook his head and turned off the flashlight. “There was an accident, though. Two cars crashed on the street that’s missing traffic lights. Luckily no one was hurt. How are the llamas doing?”
“Still there.” Dennis pointed to the pair, who were lying down on all fours, their legs bent and parallel to their belly. “Those aliens sure are causing some mischief.”
“Yeah,” Skiddy said. “We have some blocks without power, too. EDP’s shipping over a new propeller, but it’d be a week or so before things return to normal.”
“A missing propeller blade can cause that many houses to lose power?” Harlen asked.
“Oh yeah,” Skiddy said. “Without the propeller the turbine’s nothing. And there aren’t that many turbines to begin with.”
When the Deputy said that, Harlen got the distinct feeling that the aliens were not coming, that the bait they were using was all wrong. The aliens, he imagined, were collectors of things important to people. The stop signs were important to everyone: they told you where to go, when to stop, when to be cautious. Dennis’s prize horse was important because it reminded him of his daughter. The aliens kept his father because he was important to Harlen, and they returned Harlen because they deemed that he was, like the llamas, not important at all.
“The night when I was driving after my dad, when they took me up there, I pulled to the side of the highway because I wanted to smoke pot,” Harlen said. “I couldn’t keep up with him so I said, fuck it, and gave up. It wasn’t the first time he left me and my mom. I just rolled down the window and got high, forgot about everything.”
The two men stared at him. In the foggy uncomfortable silence Harlen knew they were trying to decide what to say, whether the occasion called for discipline or sympathy. He didn’t really understand what came over him, why he suddenly felt this overwhelming, self-destructive hopelessness. Maybe the aliens did do something to his brain after all.
“That’s a brave thing for you to say, son,” Dennis said.
Skiddy nodded. “You’re lucky I’m not a state trooper,” he said. “Or the DEA. Fuck it. I would’ve done the same. It’s funny how the world spins sometimes. When something isn’t there it becomes important, even when it doesn’t need to be, even when it shouldn’t be.”
Harlen leaned his head back on the tree and regretted that he didn’t bring his pipe. He’d like nothing else, at this moment, than to smoke the dope his father bought him with Dennis and Skiddy. He was relieved, though not because the Deputy didn’t condemn his drug use. Somehow he knew this lightness wouldn’t last, but he breathed in a lungful of air, and let the wind pass through the hairs on his arms. He was where he was supposed to be, and the only thing he could do was wait.
“Ready the rifle, folks,” Dennis said. “We got more aliens coming.”
Harlen turned to the woods and saw another set of headlights shining through the trees. A car door slammed. Then there was the sound of twigs snapping, followed by a woman cursing. A moment later Harlen’s mother came out to the clearing holding an aluminum tray.
The three of them waved.
“I baked cupcakes for the waylaying,” she yelled. “Well, and also to cheer me up. I hope everyone likes M&Ms.”
“Evening, mam,” Skiddy said, lifting the tray’s cover. “Don’t mind if I do.”
The aluminum reflected the moonlight and activated the camera again. Harlen removed the Polaroid and put it in his pocket as a souvenir. Later, when he came home, he hoped he could write on the bottom: The day I found my dad.
“What a lovely pair of llamas,” his mother said.
Dennis took a cupcake.
“They’re lovebirds, alright,” he said, M&Ms crunching in his mouth. “The female birthed twins a year ago.”
“Has Harlen been behaving?”
Skiddy stared at Harlen just long enough for the boy to worry about what he might say. Then he smiled. “You have a really good kid here, a real trooper.”
Dennis patted Harlen on the back. “Tough, too. You should’ve seen him at the town hall, banging on the benches and reciting lines from the Bible.”
His mother turned to Harlen in surprise. “The Bible, huh? I never knew.”
“It was very moving,” Skiddy said. “Shut everyone right up.”
“Your grandmother would be proud.”
“How is grandma?” Harlen asked.
“Hysterical. Does it make me awful that I feel better knowing she’s hysterical? It’s like by telling her I’ve transferred some of my worry onto her.”
Harlen shook his head. “There’s nothing to be hysterical about. The aliens just think dad is special. They should have him for a while, get to know him.”
The llamas laid their heads on top of each other and closed their eyes. The others crouched behind the cedar, lowered themselves into the grass, and stared out at the cloudless sky. They waited, wanting anything, no matter how faint or fleeting.
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