Zotheca

by Gary Inbinder

part 1 of 2


1. Earth

Bill turned the wobbling porcelain doorknob thinking I should have replaced this darned thing years ago. Oh well; it’s too late now. The warped crackled-white painted wooden door swung open, creaking on its superannuated hinges. After flipping on a light switch with a resounding click, he walked down one flight of foot-worn rickety wooden stairs to the dimly lit basement. He sniffed the familiar mildew odor; a twinge of arthritis gripped his right leg as he took the last step down onto the damp concrete floor.

Glancing around the cluttered room, he noticed some laundry piled on top of the dryer; shirts, pants and underwear, abandoned in a heap the last time he did the wash. That was about three days ago, he thought. On the other hand, maybe it was three weeks; what difference?

Today was Bill’s fifty-ninth birthday; earlier that evening he celebrated, alone, drinking beer at a trendy pub in a local shopping mall. The décor was typical mall pub; soft light emanating from faux-Tiffany lamps glimmering in reflection on polished dark woods and burnished brass rails; opaque frosted glass doors. Large plate glass windows opened onto an atrium filled with early Christmas shoppers scurrying around the trickling mall fountain, ubiquitous potted plants, jolly Mall Santa and Salvation Army bell ringers.

Sitting at a small table near the bar, Bill scowled and drummed his fingers on the tabletop, irritated by the noisy atmosphere and slow service. It was Friday evening, and people discussed plans for the weekend; chatter punctuated by bursts of laughter, clattering plates and glassware and ca-chinging cash registers. Everyone in the pub seemed at least twenty years younger than Bill was, and they all talked too loudly about the same things; jobs, money, entertainment, holiday shopping, sports, sex.

A young woman in skimpy dress brought his drink; the beer was tasteless. He thought about ordering a hamburger, or “pub-burger,” touted by the menu as being “a full half-pound of the best prime ground round, done just the way you like it.” Just the way I like it; and how would that be? Changing his mind, he finished his insipid beer and left without ordering.

Upon returning home from the mall, Bill made an important decision; taking a coil of stout twine from a garage shelf, he went to the basement, intending to hang himself from a ceiling crossbeam. Standing precariously upon a small footstool, he carefully tied one end of the rope to the ceiling timber giving it a few sharp jerks to test its strength. I suppose that’ll hold me, he thought. He then carefully fashioned a slipknot noose based upon boyhood memories of western films where posses strung up rustlers from trees. However, he always imagined himself the law and order sheriff, or at least an honest cowboy doing his civic duty: never the air-dancing bad-guy.

After placing the noose around his neck, his last thought before kicking away the footstool was, I won’t miss the world, and it won’t miss me. Dangling a foot above the floor, he jerked and twitched, until the pressure of the hangman’s knot on the carotid artery cut off the blood to his brain and he lost consciousness.

Bill awoke gradually, thinking the bed was unusually cold and hard; that’s because the “bed’ was the concrete basement floor. As he came to, he felt a chafing burn on his neck; he rubbed his throat and felt a nasty welt beneath the collar. “Can’t even hang myself properly,” Bill groaned, as aching joints slowly and painfully lifted his dead weight from the floor.

He sniffed a vaguely familiar scent: something pleasant from his distant past, and strong enough to cover the dank, pervasive basement odor. Yankee Clover, he thought. It couldn’t be; that’s impossible. He blinked his bleary eyes, focusing on the source of the fresh floral fragrance. A young woman gazed at Bill, her bright angelic face clouded over with anxiety. Still rubbing his rope-burned neck, Bill rose to his feet, staring in bewilderment at the girl.

She was about five-feet seven inches tall, slender and wearing a white blouse, scotch-plaid pleated skirt, knee socks and brown loafers. A tortoise-shell barrette ornamented her glossy, shoulder length light brown hair; her face was smooth and fair, her lips cherry-red and eyes sparkling light blue. She sure doesn’t look like one of those tarted up little mall-rats, Bill thought. Suddenly, his memory kicked-in; shaking his head in disbelief, he blurted, “Melanie? Melanie Mullen; it can’t be.”

Melanie was Bill’s childhood sweetheart; for a brief time, in his sophomore and junior year of high school, they were “steadies.” Then, Melanie dumped him for a much sought after senior, the quarterback and captain of the football team, Butch Shoup. Bill was despondent; for months, he wouldn’t even talk to another girl. Then, on Halloween Eve, 1964, Butch and Melanie disappeared.

At first, there were nasty rumors; gossips said Butch had gotten Melanie in trouble, and they ran away to get married out of state. Others theorized that Melanie was going somewhere to get a secret abortion, although that wouldn’t necessarily explain Butch’s disappearance.

Time passed with no trace of the missing couple, and the police suspected foul play. The new rumor was that Butch and Melanie were the victims of a lovers’ lane murderer. There was an investigation, but the police came to a dead end; after a year or so of fruitless detective work, they closed the file. Bill went away to college, where he met his wife, Sharon. Melanie was just a nebulous memory.

“Are you alright?” Melanie exclaimed. She walked toward Bill, held out her hand and gently stroked his rope-burned neck. “We were so worried,” she added. “I cut you down just in time.”

Dazed and confused, Bill coughed, cleared his sore, constricted throat and then hoarsely rasped, “Who are you, and what do you mean by ‘we’?”

Removing her hand, Melanie smiled sweetly, and replied, “I’m sorry, Bill. It’s me; Melanie, and ‘we’ refers to Butch and the Zothecans.”

Rubbing his eyes and shaking his head in an attempt to restore his oxygen deprived senses, Bill stammered, “You... you and Butch disappeared forty years ago, and what in heck are the Zo-whosis?”

“The Zothecans are an advanced civilization living on the planet Zotheca, in the Andromeda galaxy,” Melanie explained. “Butch and I were on a date after the big game with Central High. We drove out to the bluff overlooking Lake Onondaga...” Melanie blushed, and stopped for a moment.

“Go on, Melanie,” Bill interjected. “I’m a fifty-nine year old widower grandpa, and I’m not overly concerned about what you and Butch did or didn’t do at Lake Onondaga forty years ago.”

“Sorry, Bill. Anyway, Butch and I were... uh... holding hands and looking at the full moon when suddenly there was this weird musical noise, like that funny thing they play in the Science Fiction films; you know...” Melanie grimaced, opened her mouth and vocalized, “Ooow-eeeee-ooooh.”

Grinning, Bill asked, “You mean like a Theremin?”

Wrinkling her nose, Melanie replied, “Uh, yeah, like a... whatever; then, with the spooky sounds there was this light-beam, sort of like a huge flash-light shining down on us. At first, we thought it was the park police — not that we were doing anything wrong — but suddenly, the beam sucked us up, right into a big flying saucer.” Melanie puffed her cheeks, and puckered her lips, making whoosh-sucking sounds.

Bill shook his head, and said, “Young lady, I don’t know who you are, but you saved my life, so I suppose I ought to be grateful.” Staring at her, he continued, “I don’t know why you’re telling me a cock-and-bull story, but you do look enough like Melanie to be her twin sister...”

“Billy, do you remember the first time we kissed?” Melanie interrupted.

On the verge of exasperation, Bill muttered, “Huh?”

“You were standing alone behind the field-house during a break in band practice; I came looking for you. Just as I got your attention, a sudden gust of wind blew up my skirt...”

Bill remembered a bright, mild June day. The wind caught Melanie’s pink skirt, blowing it above her waist, revealing long, smooth shapely legs and white underwear. Just like Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch. Nothing more than you’d see at the beach, but he’d never forget it. She smoothed down her skirt, smiled, and crooked her finger, beckoning him: a vision of erotic innocence. Hanging his head, Bill murmured, “Alright, Melanie; I believe it’s you. Why are you here?”

“I know how you must have felt when I started going out with Butch. I’m sorry, Bill; after all, Butch was the captain of the football team. Everyone said he’d go on to college and make All-American.” Melanie stopped briefly to gaze at Bill, as if expecting some reaction.

Bill remained silent, and she continued, “Anyway, all the time Butch and I lived happily on Zotheca, I thought about the loved ones I left behind...especially, you Bill.” Blushing, Melanie lowered her eyes, adding in an almost whisper, “I asked the Zothecans to keep an eye on you, ‘cause you’re special to me. I know about your life with Sharon, how much you loved her, how sad and lonely you’ve been since she died.”

Looking up, she saw Bill pensively staring into space. Raising her voice slightly, she continued, “Your kids grew up, moved far away, and you hardly ever see them, or your grandchildren. Then, your employer pushed you into early retirement...”

“That’s enough, Melanie,” Bill interjected. “I know you mean well, but please...”

Melanie grabbed Bill’s hand, held it, and pulled him close. Her hand was soft and warm, her smile tender and disarming. “Bill, I want to make things up to you; I want you to be happy. I pleaded with the Zothecans, and they agreed to let me take you to their planet. Oh, Billy, you’ve got to come with me; it’s just like heaven!”

It was as though they were both seventeen again; Bill couldn’t resist her. Earlier, he’d hanged himself, thinking he wouldn’t miss the world, and that it wouldn’t miss him. Perhaps this was his last chance at happiness, or at least it would be a great adventure. The idea of leaving his family behind was troubling; nevertheless, they had their own lives. Seize the day, he thought. Smiling, he nodded affirmatively, and responded, “Okay, Melanie; I’ll go with you.”

Melanie stood on her toes, and kissed him, as she did that day behind the field house. Holding her in his arms, Bill felt a resurgence of warmth and the quickening of his senses; smell, taste and touch came to life like a moth breaking free from its cocoon.

Taking his hand, Melanie led him upstairs, and out the front door, cautioning, “You mustn’t talk to me while we’re walking to the spaceship. I’m gonna be invisible, so folks can’t see me. They’d think you were talking to yourself; we wouldn’t want them to say you’re goofy.”

Bill laughed; he was an almost suicide on his way to a spaceship bound for a planet no one ever heard of, led by a phantom who still worried about appearances, and what the neighbors thought. On the way to the Zothecan ship Bill inhaled the crisp evening air redolent with the sharp, smoky odor of autumnal bonfires. Wind-gusts lifted gold and russet colored leaves from the almost bare tree branches, swirling and then dropping them on the damp Earth. Looking up into the purple sky, he saw glittering stars and a bright platinum moon peering through drifting clouds. Sighing, he thought, Earth isn’t such a bad place, after all. I wonder if I’ll ever see it again.

2. Zotheca

The Zothecan space ship docked in the center of Columbus Park, near the lagoon. Silent and invisible, Melanie held Bill’s hand, leading him down the main bicycle and jogging path, and then turning left onto a narrow dirt trail lined with tall dark oaks, elms and shrubbery. In places, the overgrowth was so thick he had to keep ducking to avoid face- smacking whippy branches his ghostly pathfinder nonchalantly shoved aside.

After exiting the trail onto the shadowy cement pavement surrounding the lagoon, Melanie abruptly halted; Bill stumbled, bumping into her invisible back. A little voice from nowhere muttered, “Careful, Billy. We’re almost there. They’ve cloaked the ship; I’m sending a message to open the main entrance and lower the stairs, so we can board. Just wait a minute, until I tug on your hand.”

Bill waited a moment, and then felt the squeezing pressure of Melanie’s visually imperceptible fingers. They walked down the pavement toward a large clearing behind an alabaster colonnaded pavilion and boathouse. The gently lapping and rippling black waters of the lagoon sparkled in moonlight and the reflected yellow glow from electric lights in wrought iron lampposts.

On the grassy clearing, about forty feet from the cement walkway Melanie made another stop; this time, Bill cautiously avoided collision. They walked up twelve steep, invisible steps, their shoes making a faint metallic clang as they climbed. Upon reaching the entrance Melanie exclaimed, “Watch out.” Bill avoided tripping over the gangway rim of the open portal.

Inside the ship, Melanie materialized. Smiling, she turned to face him, asking, “Well, Billy; what do you think?”

Bill surveyed the sparkling silver and crystalline interior. There were no visible instruments, or windows; the dome-like ceiling topped with an opalescent oculus seemed to be about fifteen feet high, and the circular cabin proportional to the ceiling’s height. A barely perceptible vibration in the floor and faint humming sound gave evidence of powerful engines located somewhere in the bowels of the ship. Fixing his eyes on what appeared to be two large, black reclining chairs situated directly under the oculus he observed, “Impressive; where’s Klaatu?”

Melanie stared vacantly, replying, “Say what?”

“Don’t you remember, Mel? When we were fourteen, I took you to see a revival of The Day the Earth Stood Still, at the old Senate theatre on State Street. Admission was one dollar for the two of us. I bought you a twenty cent box of popcorn and a Green River for a dime, but I consumed most of it because you were too scared to eat or drink.”

Melanie giggled, “Yeah, I remember. I closed my eyes through half the show, and kept squeezing your hand.”

Gazing into her bright, blue eyes, Bill thought, yes Mel; it all comes back to me now.

Bill had no sensual awareness of the trip to Zotheca; as soon as he and Melanie lay back on the warm, soft glove leather-like recliners he was out, as if under the influence of a powerful anesthetic. He awakened to the sounds of gaseous hissing, electronic bleeps and a metallic hum and whirr: the opening of the portal and lowering of the stairs.

“We’re here, Billy.” Melanie smiled, and took his hand as he got up from the chair.


Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2007 by Gary Inbinder

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