by Greg Hansen
Daniel was sitting in the old ladder-back chair by the window, ostensibly reading a news magazine but in reality struggling to quell the butterflies in his stomach, when the front door burst open. Through the open doorway marched the source of Daniel’s anxiety: his son, Peter, fifteen years old, wearing an eye-straining batch of ragged, cast-off clothing and a pair of black combat boots. A harsh tinkling from Peter’s headphones preceded him across the narrow entryway. His shoulders were hunched into backpack straps and he wore a dark knit cap pulled low over his eyes.
Daniel sat up in the chair and opened his mouth, but the butterflies suddenly left his stomach and swarmed into his esophagus, where they found and put a vise-hold on his larynx. Thus blocked, the words he’d practiced so many times — practiced until finding the perfect cadence, the perfect blend of firmness and compassion — went unsaid, and Peter disappeared into the stairway. Daniel exhaled a long breath as he heard his son charge up the steps, taking them two at a time.
Bats, rats and roaches, thought Daniel, so far, so bad. He briefly considered postponing until a more opportune moment; instead, he set his jaw and slowly rose from the chair and moved toward the stairs.
Alice would’ve known just how to handle this, Daniel thought for the thousandth time. Things had been so much harder since she’d died. At first the pain had brought Peter and Daniel closer together, but when Peter started high school, a sudden change had come over him.
He became quiet, distant, furtive. He lost interest in playing ball and quit the team. He came home late at night, and sometimes not at all. Their almost daily heart-to-heart conversations abruptly stopped. Daniel was hurt, and mystified. He called his father about it.
“Oho!” the older man had crowed, “you’ve got yourself a teenaged boy!” The gist of his advice: don’t worry about it. “Same thing happened with you, Danny-boy. I woke up one morning and seeing you was like looking at a stranger, and then a few years later BAM! I got my son back! Don’t lose any more sleep over it,” he’d counseled, “Peter’ll grow out of it. They always do.”
So Daniel tried to stay supportive, to stay positive, and to stay out of Peter’s way. After all, the boy had lost his mother at age eleven and that was a serious issue to deal with. Daniel bit his tongue and searched for signs of improvement.
But none came. Instead, Peter seemed less and less like the smiling little boy with major-league dreams that Daniel knew and loved. He took to wearing rags and listening to sharp, serrated music. He became increasingly secretive and tolerated no trespassers into his bedroom. He ignored Daniel and the two would sometimes go for days without speaking to each other. Concerned and desperate, Daniel mentioned the situation to the guys at work.
Drugs, they agreed, were the cause of it. “That boy’s eating drugs,” said Max Hoeffinger, who ought to know, as he’d sent two of his kids through rehab. “I’ve sent two of my boys through rehab, and I’m telling you... you’ve got yourself a druggie.”
Daniel went home that night, climbed the stairs and stood grimly in front of Peter’s bedroom, determined to search it for whatever he might find. He tried the knob — it was unlocked — and swung the door open a few feet.Ý
Peter’s baseball posters and pennants were gone from the walls, in their place dangerous-looking people (musicians?) glowered out of photographs and handbills. Clothes were strewn across the floor and bed, deepening in the corners like snow drifts. A dresser, its drawers overflowing with rumpled clothing and who knew what else, stood against one wall next to the naked torso of a female department store mannequin.Ý
Unwashed dishes, magazines and junk food wrappers covered the small student desk in the corner by the window. The room stank of sweat and stale cotton and something else... something Daniel couldn’t quite put his finger on. The only holdover from Peter’s childhood decor was a wire and-dowel model of the solar system hanging from the ceiling.
The carnage unnerved Daniel; he quietly closed the door and retreated down the hallway. He cried a little when Peter came home that night a little after One a.m. The next morning he called the drug and alcohol hotline at the police station.
The woman with the sympathetic voice agreed with Max Hoeffinger’s assessment. She urged Daniel to confront his son in a loving but firm way. “Kids turn to drugs because they’re trying to fill a void,” she said. “They need to know you love them and that drugs can never replace that. Be strong, be firm, you’re the one who can best help him.”
So Daniel called in sick and spent all day practicing what he would say... and now he stood at the foot of the stairway, gazing up and trying to remember what it was.Ý
“Ah, now for it,” he murmured, starting his reluctant feet up the stairs. Halfway up he found some courage coming back; by the landing he’d built some pretty good emotional momentum; in front of Peter’s door he felt a zeal born of desperation. “I want my son back,” he breathed, then turned the knob and pushed the door open.
Peter looked up, startled, and the two regarded each other across the room. Rough music sawed at Daniel’s eardrums as he held Peter’s gaze for the first time in weeks. “What?!” Peter blurted, surprised and insulted.
“Will you turn that down, please?” Committed now, Daniel felt an unexpected surge of relief and confidence.
Peter scowled at his dad for a long few seconds before complying; he smacked his stereo into silence and flopped down on his bed in a huff. “What do you want, old man?” he sneered.
“You and I need to talk right now,” Daniel began, and then the other words came out in a rush. “I know what’s going on. I started putting the pieces together a few weeks ago and now I know for sure... you can try to hide it, but we parents aren’t quite the fools you take us for. I know what’s been happening, and I’ve already contacted the police” — a look of alarm washed over Peter’s face — “but they don’t have to get involved... yet. I hope we can handle this between us.”
“You... you’re not yourself, you haven’t been in months!” Daniel’s voice rose and he leaned into the room, stabbing at the air with his index finger. “In fact I can almost mark the day when this change came over you. You’ve become a slave, Peter! A slave! I love you and I have had enough! I want my son back!!”Ý Daniel’s voice shook, he felt hot tears pushing into his eyes. He blinked, surprised by his own passion.
Peter had retreated from the tirade to the far corner of the unmade bed, where he crouched, catlike and nervous, mouth agape and eyes wide with shock. For a moment it was silent in the room. Then, slowly and without taking his eyes off of his father, Peter crawled across the bed to the dresser and carefully opened the top drawer.
He reached in, searched around and withdrew a small object. Daniel’s eye caught a metallic gleam — tinfoil?! — and his pulse quickened. It was working! Peter was giving up his secret stash, things were going to be okay! He craned his neck to see what the foil wrapping held.
But instead of unwrapping a package, Peter turned the object toward Daniel, depressed a small trigger and launched a projectile across the room and into Daniel’s neck. Daniel slumped to the floor, unconscious.
With a croak and a curse Peter sprang to his feet and began pacing, his arms waving, muttering: “Safe, oh yes, they said it was safe! We’ve been doing this for decades they said... nothing to it... the parents never suspect a thing... in fact they’ve come to expect the behavioral changes! Oh yes!” he paused, breathing heavily. “They send us here to this no man’s land while they’re all safe on the Dark Side... sniffing synthos and laughing at us, no doubt!”
Peter ground his teeth and rolled his eyes, stood trembling for a moment, then leaped across the bedroom to the well-cluttered desk. He opened a drawer and reached deep inside, retrieving a sleek, notebook-sized device which he placed on the desktop. Throwing open the curtains, he aimed the device at the silver, three-quarter moon hanging just over the hedge and then punched in a security code. He waited, fingers drumming, while a small screen cycled through several shades of blue and then displayed a strange logo.
“Please identify yourself,” said the communicator in a polite, metallic purr.
“Skarlag Fourteen, assigned to Peter Dixon,” Peter said, and then, “This is a class one emergency!”
A few seconds later a haggard green face appeared on the screen, its eye blinking and its chin-tendrils awry, clearly just roused from sleep. It squinted through the screen at Peter’s anxious face.
“Identify yourself and the nature of your emergency,” it demanded in clipped tones.
“Skarlag Fourteen, and I must report that...” The creature on the screen let out a long, loud groan, shook its head and rolled its eye.
“Not you again!” it exclaimed. “What is it this time... moon drifting too close to the Earth? House cats plotting to overthrow the local government? Bah! I’ve had it with you and your ‘emergencies,’ Skarlag. Now stay off this frequency!” It leaned in to break the connection.
Peter had been listening with his mouth pressed into a tight line. “Those were honest mistakes!” he protested, “but there’s no mistake this time. We’ve got a colossal problem on our hands!”
The green creature paused, sighed, leaned back in resignation. “What is it?” it said, tiredly.
”They know about us.”
They eye on the screen narrowed and gave Peter a calculating look. “And what makes you think so?”
“Because my host’s father confronted me tonight and told me the whole story! He said he knew his son was a slave, said he knew what was going on, told me he wanted his son back.”
“Now wait just a minute...”
“He’s already contacted the police!” Peter hissed, with a quick glance out the window. “I’m telling you, they are onto us! We need to get everyone out... tonight!”
The creature blinked its eye and regarded Peter for a moment. “Do you have any idea how many operatives we have in place?” Peter shook his head. “Millions. Tens of millions. Even if we wanted to we couldn’t extract them all in a month, much less a single night.”
“Well, I need extraction immediately,” Peter shot back, licking his lips. “I’m not staying here ten more minutes!”
The creature regarded Peter carefully. “You’re sure about this?”
“Where’s the host’s father now?”
“I sedated him, he’s right over there,” Peter replied, pointing at the crumpled form of Daniel in the doorway.
“All right... how long has he...‘known’?”
“Couple of weeks, a month at most.”
The creature sighed. “All right, Skarlag, have it your way. We’ll extract you tonight. Your assignment is nearly over, and besides the data you’ve been submitting lately is next to useless. Wipe the parent’s memory for, say, the last six weeks. Then stand in the center of the room with your arms at your sides.”
Peter sprang up from the chair and swiped the palm-sized stun device from the corner of the desktop. He adjusted a few dials as he crossed the floor, then waved it across Daniel’s forehead. He spun and nearly tripped on a pile of laundry as he scampered back to the middle of the room, where he stood up straight, closed his eyes, and waited.
A few seconds later Peter Dixon began to glow. His edges blurred, pixellated, and a green, one-eyed, tendrilled-chin face appeared superimposed over his own. Slowly the outline of a slim green-skinned creature detached itself from Peter, who fell limply to the floor when the last contact was broken. The creature stretched luxuriously, then disappeared in a flash of yellow light.
Daniel slowly came awake, aware of a sharp stiffness in his neck and of someone vigorously shaking his shoulder. He opened his eyes and squinted up at the face of his son, Peter.
“Dad, Dad... you awake?” Peter was beaming and held two baseball gloves in his hands. “Wake up! C’mon, if we hurry we can play a quick game of catch before school!”
Daniel blinked and then slowly smiled, soft morning light from the window sparkling in his eyes.
Copyright © 2004 by Greg Hansen