I’d joked with my buddies plenty about how those things flying over the forest service ground were searching for somebody to “probe.” I know Paul was an asshole, but I laughed along with the rest of the guys when he made fun of how scared Ralph was by everything that was happening. Paul would go on and on in a high-pitched voice imitating Ralph, talkin’ about how he was hoping for a good probing the next time them saucers came around. Ralph didn’t like Paul making fun of him, but he laughed right along with the rest of us, I guess to try and fit in.
Of course, all our talk was just bluster. We were scared.
Paul’s lady friend was one of the first people that went missing. She eventually turned up again, all dazed and confused and thinking she’d just gone to get some smokes when she’d really been gone for days. Then she disappeared a second time. Then a third. It seemed like she was gonna stay gone that third time. “Maybe she’s finally run off,” Ralph and I would whisper when Paul was out of earshot. Then Maisey turned up in a flop house in Memphis, dead from an aneurysm. She was just 27 years old.
Them creepy black sedans first came around to “investigate” the missing person reports—back when folks still bothered to try and call the authorities about things like a person going missing. Those black cars and the strange, quiet men who went around in them were every bit as creepy as the goddam saucers. Neither the saucers nor the cars belonged in the backwoods Ozarks. They was both just wrong.
Between the saucers in the woods and them cars prowling around, we all had to change how we lived. We stopped hunting and fishing and camping. We stayed home at night instead of drinking out in the woods. Most nights we’d rotate between Paul’s place, Ralph’s, and mine, so’s we could drink safe and indoors. Paul would always bring that handle of that rock-gut whiskey that he likes, and Ralph would bring some harder stuff. I had to be careful on account of my parole officer likes to surprise me with a cup to piss in, but the booze was allowed so long as I didn’t drive. It wasn’t much fun to spend the winter either at work or getting drunk inside our shitty houses, but it was a way to pass the time.
Then Paul disappeared. I was messaging him on my phone to figure out where to meet up that night. His last message said, “someone’s got their goddam car lights on bright outside. Me and Mr. Glock are going to go tell em to turn it off.” I asked him if he was such a wuss that he needed a Glock just to ask someone to to turn off a light, and then I told him to be careful that he didn’t get his ass probed by a flying saucer out there. I sent along with a little laughing emoji so he’d know I was joking.
Paul never got back with me. I sat at home all alone and cold sober that night.
Sunday morning I broke down and called Paul, but there wasn’t any answer. By Sunday lunchtime I called Ralph to go with me to check on him. Ralph and I pulled into Paul’s place as the rain was starting. It was just barely too warm to snow, which I guess was a blessing given how much water the storm was dumping on us. It had set in to really pouring by the time we got to Paul’s house.
Paul’s place ain’t much, just a two room shotgun shack in the woods east of town. He bought it cheap from a meth cooker to fix up and flip if folks ever start buying houses around here again. When we pulled up the front door was flapping open in the wind. Inside there was water pooled up on the vinyl planks I’d helped Paul put down last fall. Ralph and I crept in as cautious as we could, but it was just the normal bachelor mess that we found. There weren’t any Little Green Men, but there wasn’t any Paul, either.
After we realized Paul was gone we stood in the door and watched the rain fall for a few seconds. Then Ralph said, “I guess that son of a bitch is getting his ass probed like he deserves, huh?” I could tell was trying hard to not sound worried.
“I reckon so,” I answered him.
Then, after a long pause, I said, “Ralph, I think we ought to go before they get us. Maybe head to Arkansas or something. That’s where folks go to hide from trouble.”
Ralph looked at me a little harder than was comfortable.
“It’s Sunday,” he said, “I got work tonight.”
“What’s worse?” I asked him. “Gettin’ fired or getting probed on some goddam flying saucer?”
Ralph looked at me long and thoughtful like. Then he nodded and said, “When you put it like that, it seems like we ought to go. Let’s swing back by my place so I can grab some clothes and shit, then we can head out.” I nodded and drove back into town and the tiny little house Ralph rents.
Ralph dashed into the house through the pouring rain. I waited in the truck. After five minutes Ralph was back with a grungy old duffel bag and that Smith & Wesson revolver his daddy used to carry. As soon as he closed the truck’s door, Ralph yanked a box of .357 Magnum cartridges out of the bag and started loading them into the gun.
“I’m going to grab a couple of things from my place, too,” I told him as I turned the key in the ignition. Ralph just grunted back at me.
We made it to my sagging duplex in three minutes. The gutters were overflowing onto me as I rattled the door up and down until it came loose and swung open. I dripped my way into the house and grabbed an empty plastic grocery bag from the kitchen counter. Then I went to my bedroom and tossed some clean socks and underwear into the sack, followed by my other pair of jeans and a long-sleeved t-shirt. I patted the pocket of my jeans to make sure the pocketknife Granddad had given me was there. I was about to head back out to the truck when I remembered the wad of cash I keep hid behind the pickle jar in the refrigerator. I grabbed the money and looked around the place one last time. I couldn’t have a pistol while I was on parole, so I settled for the baseball bat behind the door.
Ralph was fiddling with his gun when I got back to the truck, taking different grips while holding it down below the dash so nobody going past could see what he was doing.
“Put that thing away” I told him. “As nervous as you are, you’re more likely to put a bullet in me than you are to shoot a spaceman.”
He scowled at me, but he stuck the gun into the old leather holster and then shoved the whole thing back into the crummy duffel bag. When I started the truck the wipers sloshed what seemed like gallons of water to either side. I let the windshield clear and then headed south down CC Highway. I had an uncle that’d once hid from the Missouri law for three months down in Mountain View, and they only caught him on account of his old lady giving him away. I ain’t got an old lady to give me away, so even though I’d never been there I figured that Mountain View would be a good place to go and hide.
We were heading south and just winding up Hinkle Mountain when I saw the light gray smudge moving fast underneath the dark gray of the clouds. Ralph saw it, too. He rummaged his daddy’s pistol out of the bag and held it with shaking hands. There wasn’t any way to turn off or turn around, because we were in that narrow stretch where the WPA blasted the rock away during the Depression. The highway takes a crooked route to the low spot just west of the peak of the mountain. The saucer was moving fast, but I didn’t have much choice. I had to try to run us past the damn thing. So I pushed the pedal down and my old truck spluttered up the mountain as fast as it could.
Then the light gray smudge stopped and hovered just above the ridgeline where the road cuts a gap through the trees. Once it held still, what had been a blur became disk rotating slow and sedate in the rainstorm. Ralph and I both screamed when the beam of light shot out from the bottom side of the saucer.
I hit the brakes and was leaping out of the truck before it had even stopped moving. I forgot all about the baseball bat. Ralph was on the downhill side where the ground drops away fast, but he jumped out and started skidding down the hill anyway, holding his daddy’s pistol up over his head in his right hand as he went. I left the truck running right there on the road and went after him.
The driving rain washed us down the slope of limestone dotted with cedar trees. In that crazy light of a winter thunderstorm, it was impossible to say how high the saucer was, or even how big. It just filled the entire sky above us and somehow beckoned us to join it. When I felt the tug, I wrapped myself in a sticky bear hug around a scraggly cedar a little taller than I would have been if I could’ve stood up. First below me, then above me, Ralph was waving the pistol as he floated up toward the saucer. The torrents of rain muffled the crack of his shots, but from my sanctuary there amongst the cedar boughs I could see the muzzle of Ralph’s gun flash once, twice, three times before he disappeared into a light far too bright for me to look into.
I clung to my tenacious tree and waited.