Bobby McAllister stood facing the semicircle of adults gathered on the fringe of the green town square. Behind him was the black iron statue of Lemuel Blackwood Tucker, founder of Tucker's Ridge, Tennessee. A white cloud obscured the sun, although it was a pleasant enough August morning and a few sparrows observed from the century-old oak tree that some said looked like a blacksmith hammering a forge when the sun struck it at just the right angle in the late afternoon. A slight breeze stirred the bangs from Bobby's forehead. He was eleven but short for his height, and the hand-me-down overalls were a size too big for him.
"Thatta boy, Bobby,” a few people mumbled.
"You can do it.”"Don't be afraid. Just walk right in, and we'll pray that you're one of the ones who come out.”
"God's always with you when you walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” Minister Perkins intoned in a nasal voice from the edge of the crowd, five deep. He wore a black suit and held a black leather-bound Bible cracked at the binding from decades of baptizing and delivering sermons and burying townsfolk and offering comfort to lonely widows.
I suspect you'll be needing this,” said Ben Crick, handing Bobby a brand new claw hammer. The thin eighty-year-old man owned the brick hardware store on Main Street which ran horizontally directly behind the square. Crick was wiry, all elbows and knees draped with a red and black checkered shirt, and people said he looked like a scarecrow who'd up and left his pole out in the cornfield just to show the farmers of Tucker's Ridge who was boss. He was gruff and liked to scowl at little children. On the Day of Offering, however, he was more subdued, and his croaky voice, scraped raw by unfiltered cigarettes, didn't convey its usual mean-spiritedness.
Bobby accepted the hammer in his right hand, his left already clutching a loaf of banana nut bread.
Hill Richardson, the postmaster, flicked his wrist, motioning for Bobby to turn around and commence his duty.
Bobby's heart beat quickly as he faced the opposite direction by moving his feet in small half-steps, swallowing hard as his Adam's apple bobbed up and down like a cork being tugged by a Trout in the stream that ran behind the mill a mile away. Bobby's mother Samantha raised her smart phone and snapped a picture of her son, but his father, Dom Ray McAllister, pushed her hand down harshly, a clear indication that the event was not one that should be memorialized. She'd just wanted to get a shot of Bobby being brave . . . and just in case there would be no more photographs.
Aye, that was the rub. Some children never came back again from the ceremony in that . . . thing up ahead. A few did, and they usually had vacant looks in their eyes, as if they'd been hypnotized or stared too long at the spinning disks and wavy mirrors at a traveling carnival. These unfortunate kids were sometimes sent to Dr. Merwin Childress, a retired psychiatrist who lived in a large, ramshackle Victorian house half a mile from the end of Main Street. Childress wore a brown suit, red bow tie, and thick glasses that magnified his pale blue eyes, and he scared children and adults alike with his long, probing stares, as if mining for information from the depth of the souls he encountered when he retrieved mail from his Post Office box or did some shopping on Main Street. But did he help the children with vacant stares, known to the town as the Lost Souls? No, those unfortunate beings were usually sent to Bleak House, a nickname given by Charles McAllister, Bobby's Father, to the gray four – story stone building that housed troubled or runaway kids from three adjoining counties. It's Dickensian character was merited, for it was a facade of masonry that was like a black hole, a building from which no sounds emanated, and no one, neither child nor adult, was seen walking about the grounds of the three acres surrounding the facility.
And there it was, shiny on its underside and black on top, a circular spacecraft that had silently fell from the sky with no more drama than a fall leaf floating to the ground. That had been in early May, and the alien ship had been on the green behind the statue of Lemuel Tucker ever since.
Bobby McAllister bravely took a step forward, and then another. Then two more. After thirty seconds, he was dead even with the statue. He glanced left and frowned at the metallic likeness, which he regarded as a sham. Tucker had allegedly been an Army hero lost in World War One while fighting the Battle of the Marne in France. He'd never returned, not even as a dead body in a coffin, and rumors had been spread over the years that Tucker was a myth, a figment of the collective imagination of Tucker's Ridge, a man who gave pride and purpose to a small town not far from a ridge that overlooked a green valley that rolled for miles. The town librarian and archivist said that she couldn't find any birth certificate for Tucker or, for that matter, any records at all for a family named Tucker within a hundred miles of Main Street or the square or the flagpole near the bandstand, it's rope and metal hooks clanging against the steel pole when a winter wind whipped through the town. Bobby had written as much in the essay writing contest a year earlier, and the principal of his school had wadded the paper into a ball and thrown it into the corner trashcan of his classroom, telling him that it was wrong, unpatriotic, disgraceful to shame his town, his roots, his heritage. Lemuel Blackwood Tucker was a hero. Mr. and Mrs. McAllister had promised the principal that Bobby would be more respectful in the future.
"You're nothing but crap,” Bobby muttered, talking to the statue as his legs carried him an extra step before craning his head to look at the expectant, nervous, watchful faces of the crowd behind him. There were, of course, no children present. No one under fourteen ever attended the Day of Offering unless it was his turn, girls being excluded from the ritual. But Bobby saw them in his mind's eye nevertheless, the tall ones and the bold ones and those who could cut the wind like a knife when they played sports or catch or just horsed around in the schoolyard.
Go away, runt!
Still wearing your older brother's overalls?
Look! It's the kid with two left feet.
Bobby was never picked for any of the teams when Tom Windhoven and Carl Buck chose their baseball teams on Saturday afternoons at the sandlot behind the feed store. "He can't throw or bat or catch,” Tom claimed. "At least not very well.” Bobby was only chosen if somebody was sick or had a broken leg, and he was always put into right field where he couldn't do too much damage unless the left – handed Carl Buck hit a long fly ball. Sometimes Bobby caught it, but more often than not he dropped it since he was forced to use his big brother's oversized glove.
He turned around and stared harshly at the citizens, their nervous, hopeful eyes fixed on him, a boy, who was being asked to do a man's job. He was always picked on, so why did he draw such an assignment? Why not let Eddy Bricker or Andy Pine, two hulking boys who played varsity football for Tucker High, bring the alien what it wanted. Both boys—and many more—were as solid as telephone poles or tree stumps.
He faced forward again, angry. The alien had communicated with townspeople telepathically ever since the ship had landed. It said that its craft had been damaged upon entering earth's atmosphere but that it couldn't leave its ship, a detail that it obviously didn't wish to explain. It had asked for various bits of hardware from Crick's value Hardware and electronics from Will Payne's electronics store, which sold smart phones, computers, and all things digital. The parts were allegedly to help the extraterrestrial repair its ship.
There had been no military invasion of the town—no men in Black or CIA or Air Force brass to investigate the visitor—since the unseen being in the saucer had obviously used its telepathic powers to block anyone from entering Tucker's Ridge. Cars pulled up to point five miles out of town on State Highway 12 and stopped, passengers getting out, scratching their heads, and muttering, "No, I think we should turn around. We must have taken a wrong turn. We certainly don't want to go through that Godforsaken town.” Some claimed to have heard warnings about a medical quarantine of the town or a deadly chemical leak from a rail car passing on the tracks skirting the north end of the hamlet.
The alien's mental powers could also cause electronic havoc since no radio, cell phone, or television signal could get in or out of the town. It was as if Tucker's Ridge existed in dead air space. Many people had stood on their green, manicured front lawns, looking skywards, but they saw no enclosure or dome such as the one in the story written by that fella in Maine who wrote the long books. No, the alien had severed contact with the rest of the world using the same telepathic powers – and who knows what other kind of alien mojo – that enabled him to place his thoughts, always in the form of demands and warnings, into the minds of Tucker's Ridge inhabitants. The requests weren't frequent and were reminders that children should bring it the parts to repair the parts as well as food. No adults need apply, and that had become obvious when Sheriff Vernon Gimble had tried to enter the craft, not that he'd had the courage or moxie to get put down his donuts, get off his ass, and walk up to the craft and take a look – see at the craft. The mayor and townspeople had insisted that he act like a sheriff for once in his life since he mostly functioned as the school crossing guard in a town that hadn't seen a crime committed since someone stole a few chickens from Mrs. Watson's henhouse sixteen years earlier. Vernon had been thrust backwards on his derriere by . . . well, he didn't know what had thrown him unceremoniously backwards fifteen feet when he'd climbed the sloping ramp that led into the ship. He foolishly said it had been an atomic ray, but that was Hollywood B movie parlance, and nobody believed it. What they did accept was that adults weren't welcome and that something powerful and kept Vernon from trying to enter the spaceship.
The statue to a man who probably never existed, Vernon Gimble's cowardice and lies, the bullying from classmates – all of these things made Bobby mad, mad as hell. He breathed fast as he turned one last time to look at the faces of people sending a boy to do a man's job – to hell with the alien's demand. He was ready to shoot fire from his eyes and thunder obscenities if he'd had a louder voice, but the voice within was loud and he decided he didn't give a lousy damn what or who was inside the ship. If he never came out, that would be fine by him. Whatever was inside, even if it tortured kids, couldn't be worse than living in Tucker's Ridge.
Bobby turned one last time to look at the faces of the people sending David to face Goliath, a group of people huddled together and gawking as if the terrible event was almost recreation, a reprieve from the daily routine of their lives that was purgatory since living in a small town in the digital age had left people restless and unfulfilled and longing for bright lights, big city. He saw Joe Nighthawk, the Native American, standing on the edge of the crowd, playing cat's cradle with Seamus, the town drunk. Joe had told a group of children huddled around a campfire one summer's night that the earth and the planets and stars – everything, in fact – were just specks of dust caught in the Sky Father's web, like flies caught in the intricate filaments spun by arachnids. He said that this was his tribe's model of creation, and that the reason he constantly played cat's cradle was because the string – flexed and angled and crisscrossing between two sets of hands – reminded him of a spider's web.
Joe paused, looked at Bobby, then smiled and nodded.
Bobby was still mad – mad at the town and mad at life – but he thought Joe Nighthawk knew a thing or two about life, and Joe often talked to the boy when things weren't going so well. Bobby could sit and listen to Native American wisdom for hours, knowledge passed to Joe by the elders of the Cherokee and Chickasaw.
Bobby walked forward confidently, his heart no longer hammering against his ribs like a blacksmith's hammer. The silver ramp of the craft slid forward from its belly as a door slid upwards, a black, ominous rectangle beyond.
Clutching the hammer and bread, Bobby entered the ship. He walked down a corridor for ten yards – the craft seemed so much larger on the inside than he thought possible, leading him to think that the n three dimensions were somehow being stretched inside the round ship – and came to a round chamber with the creature sitting in a well at its center. It was a monstrous, gelatinous eye, ten feet tall, and it sat on the brown, rubbery body from which extended a dozen tentacles, thirty feet in length, that played along the sides of the craft, working its controls and causing thousands of lights to blink. The eye was periodically covered, bottom to top, by two large transparent membranes. Its black pupil rotated this way and that, dilating and shrinking as it surveyed its surroundings, but only a few seconds passed before it focused on Bobby McAllister.
Put the hammer and loaf of bread at your feet.
The words appeared magically in Bobby's mind, and this was the first time that he personally had been in communication with the giant alien eye or octopus or whatever it was. The voice, the words were like the clashing of symbols, waves breaking on a shore, the echo in a large auditorium. So loud! But the words were intelligible, and Bobby knew exactly what was being asked of him. He placed the banana bread on the floor, and within seconds a tentacle snaked over a railing protecting the ship's inhabitant and snatched the food and brought it to a slit in its brown body, where the loaf disappeared immediately.
I don't like the taste of human flesh. I've tried it. It's nasty and doesn't nourish me. Now give me the hammer.
"Why does an advanced alien need hardware and electronics from twenty – first century earth. It's not to repair your stupid ship!” Bobby spit out the words as he flipped the finger to the awful, dreadful, monstrously large eye. "No, I won't give you the hammer, you . . . freak!”
The tentacles began whipping about in a frenzy, Bobby ducking on rolling on the titanium deck plate, at times rolling forwards as if he were maneuvering a modern obstacle course. One tentacle slipped around his ankle, pulling him off his feet, but Bobby, adrenaline flowing like a river at crest through his bloodstream, tore the soft, fleshy skin of the limb with the claw of the hammer. A sound like a full orchestra – pain exploded in the boy's head. Another tentacle chased him, and six smaller tentacles, like fingers, grew from its parent, groping and groping for the wrist of the elusive, stubborn human.
It was during one of Bobby's tumbles that his eyes aimed at the dome of the ship, glowing like a fluorescent dish turned upside down. His eyes widened, but he drove away the terror with sheer willpower as he beheld twenty of the town's youth, stuck to the dome as if magnetized. Their forms were plastered against the glowing surface, arms and limbs and heads contorted in grotesque poses. The looks on their twisted features spoke of pain, fear, consternation. The boys, many of whom had been merciless as they mocked Bobby McAllister, looked like flies stuck to flypaper, their eyes, bulging and white, pleading with the boy below to do something – anything – to free them from the hell of being trapped inside the alien spacecraft. And yet no words were uttered by the captives, not even a grunt or a groan, their hair spilling over their ears and foreheads. The creature was muting the speech centers in their brains by whatever mental powers enabled it to do all it did while its craft was parked on the town square of the backwater known as Tucker's Ridge.
But the creature also needed to keep the boys alive, and Bobby noted that one of its tentacles was dedicated solely to feeding morsels of bread and vials of water to its captives high in the air.
Bobby had an epiphany. His senses were razor – sharp, his mind working faster than a computer. In an instant, he knew that the creature needed some form of sustenance, and hence the bread and vegetables and fruit pies the children brought it, like offerings to a god, but it couldn't digest meat or flesh and blood and bone, not animal, not human. What offered it the most sustenance was fear – pure, full – out, terror and fear. If it could send out thought vibrations, then it apparently could receive them as well, and in the case of the gigantic, all – seeing eye, it wanted the vibrations of horror and fright. It thrived on them and drew strength for whatever alien physiology it possessed. Bobby grinned, squeezed his eyes tightly, and sent waves and waves of contempt of hatred to the being, and it responded by thrashing its tentacles more wildly than ever. It didn't like hate or courage or cunning – no, not in the least – and the eye spun rapidly, like a roulette wheel, its ugly eye blinking and blinking in confusion, its tentacles reaching for the young human on the circular deckplate in vain, missing by feet and even yards with each swipe and swoosh.
"What's wrong, you stupid bastard?” Bobby called. "Don't like what I'm feeding you? Are you choking? Am I impossible to digest?” he broke into laughter, which enraged the creature all the more.
Stop! Now! I command you!
Waves and cymbals and tubas and trombones and rocks tumbling down in a landslide. The sounds Bobby heard were these and others for which he had no comparison, but they filled his mind as he continued to dart from one place to another, weaving in and out of the wild, swaying tentacles.
The membrane no longer blinked over the eye, which was fully dilated. The entire round, jelly – like orb pulsed, and Bobby felt or heard – he didn't know which – a heartbeat.
"I guess I'm raising your blood pressure,” Bobby cried out scornfully, brandishing the hammer like a sword. "Well, good! Do you hear me? I want to kill you, you bastard!”
Bobby glanced at the dome? Was that hope he saw in the eyes above him, in the eyes of jack Smith, who regularly shoved him to the dirt in the schoolyard? In the eyes of Bill Rooter, who called him booger head at lunch?
"Ah well, now, the shoe's on the other foot now, mates! But I'll make a pack with ya. If I defeat this bug – eyed son of a bitch, you'll treat me better, now won't you?”
Bobby intended to do battle either way, but thinking now at the speed of light, he thought he would leverage the situation to his advantage. He would kill two birds with one stone. He would be king of the hill, Bobby the dragon slayer.
While he'd been lost in his fantasy of ruling the schoolyard, of slaying the hideous strength before him, a tentacle, puffing out to twice its normal size was whistling through the air, aiming straight for his head. Bobby ducked and let the appendage fly over his scalp like the blade of a fan.
He was on the mound, and it was the bottom of the ninth. The bases were loaded, but if he struck out the batter, then the visiting team would be crushed, defeated. Bobby cocked his right arm, fingers curled around the rubber grip at the bottom of the shiny steel shaft of what was now a weapon. Eyes squinting, he raised his left leg, inhaled, and brought his right arm forward with all the strength he could muster. He released the hammer, which went tumbling end over end, a blur, straight at the creature.
The hammer struck the eye dead – center with a swishing, gurgling sound as the orb began to hemorrhage. The entire ship vibrated as, one by one, children began falling from the dome to the deck, dazed and crumpled. The tentacles vibrated, as if the monster were having a seizure, and shards of the dome fell to next to Bobby's feet. They looked like glass but were as heavy as iron or steel. Their jagged sides were sharp, like the blades on his father's safety razor, and Bobby acted instinctively, knowing without premeditation exactly what he wanted – what he needed – to do. He bent over and clutched a piece of the broken dome and sliced the end of the nearest tentacle with a horizontal motion, his arm wheeling through the air again and again until he'd cut the ends of half a dozen appendages, all of which oozed green and yellow liquids.
Death. I'm dying. No, not death. Light years only to die? No . . . no . . . no. Come back, children. I die.
Boys stumbled and staggered to their feet, dazed and unsteady on their feet, watching Bobby swing his terrible swift sword like a ninja or a knight in battle. For a few brief moments, the boy bullied by the youth of an entire town witnessed a killing machine as Bobby's anger, pent up and raw and vengeful, attacked the creature that had kept Tucker's Ridge as hostage.
Bobby was nearly spent as he saw Odie Huff fall from the dome, land, and stand up, staring at his liberator. Odie was the one boy, ten years old and four inches taller than Bobby, who hung around the young McAllister and admired him for his intelligence and ability to mput up with so many buttholes, as he termed it.
"Pretty amazing,” Odie mouthed silently. "Awesome. Thanks.”
Smiling, Bobby looked at the collapsing eye as its vitreous humor oozed in all directions. The pupil had collapsed to a pinpoint, and its membrane – Bobby presumed it was an eyelid of sorts – peeled away like the petal of an orchid bending over in decay. The eye was shriveling, growing smaller by the minute, its inner crescendo of a voice now mute. The alien was dead.
Bobby surveyed the interior of the spacious craft and knew exactly what he would do in the coming minutes. He would do it for himself, he would do it for the town. And he would do it for his persecutors, all of whom had been unjustly imprisoned. He threw down his makeshift blade and picked up a chunk of tentacle three feet long. It was soft but not slimy, as he expected it would be. Tiny pores littered its surface, and whether these had allowed the creature to breathe or were the places where its small fingers had grown was not something Bobby could discern, nor did he really care. That was for someone else to figure out. Maybe Professor Truebridge at the small city down the road could figure it out.
"Come on, boys!” Bobby cried. "Follow me!”
The young hero, swelled with deserved pride, led the band of ragtag boys from the saucer as he held the severed appendage, not a sickly gray color, high above his head. He marched triumphantly, and no other boy dared break ranks or run ahead of his leader.
The semicircle of townspeople at first drew back in apprehension, not sure of what they were witnessing. Was it an illusion? What was the young McAllister lad holding in his upraised hands? And were the children following him really their own, or were they ghostly apparitions, for, in truth, most parents had given up their young for dead. A collective gasp escaped their throats as they carefully edged forward again, realizing that these were indeed the lost citizens of Tucker's Ridge.
As Bobby and his smiling, freckled brigade passed the statue of Lemuel Blackwood Tucker, he spoke in a loud voice. "The alien is dead.” He paused for dramatic effect. "I killed it.”
The crowd of adults parted as the procession drew closer, allowing Bobby to throw his trophy from battle down on the green grass. It was as if the Red Sea had parted, an entire nation having been freed from the oppression of Pharaoh. And then the jubilation could be contained no longer as children and parents rushed at each other, producing tears and embraces and cries of joy and surprise. Mothers fell to their knees, holding the cheeks of their sons in their hands, looking into their eyes as if to say, "It's really you! It really is!” As the reality sank in that the nightmare was over, that there would be no more days of offering, that children would not be sent to Dr. Childress or Bleak House, at least not because their town had been chosen as prey by an alien invader, their attention turned to Bobby McAllister, who stood tall, his mother and father flanking him, hands on his shoulders.
"That a boy, Bobby,” said someone in the rear of the assembly.
"Nice job, son.”
"Always said that boy would amount to something.”
"That's what I call bravery. Yesiree.”
Bobby looked back at the craft. He now felt more sober about his accomplishment. He was proud – yes – but he could have been killed. He had acted nonetheless. He suspected his peers would give him more respect now – that was almost a given – but even if they didn't, he knew how to hold his own, how to act, how to stand up for himself.
Parents and children cheered and whooped and hollered and applauded, and Bobby knew that it was for the town's newfound freedom as much as it was for him. That was okay. He'd done his job and risen to the occasion, and then some. He turned and looked over his shoulder at the craft. Already, in the absence of telepathic powers or some invisible shield around the town, Army jeeps were roaring into town circling the saucer, military men I dark green jumping out and forming a perimeter around the craft. Unmarked cars followed, with men in dark suits and short hair mingling among the townsfolk, taking names and interviewing them about events of the past months. In the hours and days ahead, everyone would be interviewed – debriefed, in military terms – and then interviewed again by people without names, people who scribbled in pads or typed on phones or took photographs. Cell phones would be collected and wiped clean of any pictures of the craft that had dominated life in Tucker's Ridge. And there would be warnings to tell no one what happened. Indeed, the town would be quarantined for three months and supplies would be brought in by the military while tests were run. Soil samples would be taken, and people's blood would be drawn, and men with electronic equipment far more sophisticated than that sold by Ben Crick would check for radioactivity and God knew what. There would be no media, no film crews. As the men in dark suits, the event had never happened.
But these events would unfold in their fullness in the days ahead. At present, Bobby examined the jeeps and men in military fatigues and knew that they would want to speak with him first and foremost since he's the one who had slain Goliath with a slingshot and a rock, a claw hammer and a little pluck. The town square and Main Street were emptying quickly as people returned home for a celebratory supper and welcome home parties and general relief or jubilation. The children had been lost but were now found, had been dead but were now alive, and live was now good again. Life would be normal, and farmers could harvest while people would gossip on the loading dock of Tuckers Seed and Feed. People would get haircuts and go to school and mail letters.
Bobby saw that the Wicked Woman, dressed in red as she always was, stood stock – still, as if hypnotized, gazing from the spacecraft to Bobby and back to the spacecraft. She'd been in town as long as he could recall, but people shunned her for reasons he didn't understand. He supposed it had something to do with sex, which Odie had explained to him two years earlier. Ben Crick had turned away, muttering "Bunch of foolishness is all it was. Nothing more, nothing less.” His gangly arms and legs made their way across Main Street like a spider extending its legs here and there to move across a surface. As he did so, Hill Richardson ran Old Glory up the flagpole, something he sometimes forgot to do on the days of offering. Minister Perkins leaned against a sycamore tree fifty yards away and sipped from a silver flask before returning to his parsonage.
The play was over, the curtain had come down, and Bobby had not taken a bow after his initial victory march from the craft. People had shaken his hand and rubbed his hair as if to say "Way to go,” but that was over now.
Lemuel Blackwood Tucker, of course, had seen it all, the way he saw everything that went on in town. He stood motionless, a piece of black metal that looked dispassionately at everyone and everything. Whoever he was, whoever he had been – if, indeed, he had been anyone at all – he was always there, watching, watching.
Bobby, with his parents, started walking home under the afternoon sun. From the corner of his eye, the boy spied two figures at the edge of the square. Joe Nighthawk and Seamus were still playing cat's cradle.
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