Michael St. John
You couldn’t miss it.
The flying saucer is a less than fifty yards off the highway. It’s a sleek silver in the desert sun, the only thing like it for miles of mesquite and sage brush.
A road sign pointing toward the saucer proclaims it is The LAST Stop on the Extraterrestrial Highway. A rogue’s gallery of aliens accompany the sign: Spielberg’s E.T., a smiling xenomorph with capped teeth in place of fangs, Dr. Spock, the comic worm quartet from Men in Black, Baby Yoda, and Jar-Jar Binks.
All of the illustrations are just close enough to avoid copyright infringement, but the character recognition is undeniable. The one that evades potential lawsuits is the ubiquitous, classic alien. Oval head, almond eyes, pale skin. The Roswell Grays. There are dozens of fiberglass sculptures of the little buggers around the parking lot, set in kitschy tableaus.
A full Gray family stands near the entrance to the saucer. Daddy Gray wears a loud Hawaiian shirt. Momma Gray holds a baby Gray Junior on her narrow hip. The tight lines of their mouths are curled into smiles, inviting human visitors to pose with them.
The shot has to be taken with an old-school camera, of course. There is no internet out here, high-speed or otherwise. No chance for social media updates. This far out, the cell reception is spotty at best.
On the highway, fairly dedicated people may hit a few of the trinket shops, order a UFO omelet at a mom-and-pop diner. They might even buy a ticket to a skeezy roadside attraction and take a peek in the back room. There will be mason jars filled with “authentic” aliens that look suspiciously like plucked chickens and pig fetuses. It’s all part of the experience, they’ll reason. This is the freaky side of Americana.
But eventually these interested, motivated-more-than-average folks will get the gist, grow tired of the swindle, and make the U-turn back to civilization. Maybe go to Vegas, where the gimcrackery has the added bonus of an all-you-can-eat buffet and a chance to catch Celine Dion at the Bellagio.
So, all that is to say, we don’t get many visitors. But we do get some.
The trio who walk through the gift shop door (cueing the Mos Eisley cantina ditty from Star Wars) are an example of dedication. The woman and both men fall into the age range between legally renting a car—which one of them did, seeing the dust-streaked Prius with Avis tags parked in the lot—and running for president.
Not that any of them would try for the latter. The woman has frizzy hair dyed the color of kelp and a full sleeve tattoo of robots in yoga poses. The skinnier, taller man has a pierced nose and a bolo tie with a bird skull hanging loosely from his neck. The chunkier guy, presumably the third wheel, has his stringy hair tied back in a rawhide ponytail, all the better to show his t-shirt with the humble brag, I know C++, what’s YOUR superpower?
They are a motley crew, and each of them has a tired, hungry look in their eyes. They are on a quest, an adventure. They have gone the distance, reached the outer limits. It’s admirable.
Having arrived at the terminus, though, Ponytail can’t hide his disappointment. He pokes at the personalized raygun key chains on the display rack. “The last stop, huh? You’d think they’d have special merch or something. I saw these same ones fifty miles back.”
“Don’t be rude,” the woman says in a sotto voice. “You’re just mad they don’t have your name on anything.”
“Can you blame them?” He scowls at one particular raygun keychain. “Glen with an e but never Glin with an i. What was mom thinking, seriously?”
“She wanted you to be special.”
“Yeah, special enough to be ignored.” For a grown man, Glin sure can pout.
Bolo, the skinny guy, pipes up. “Listen, we’ll find a good souvenir here, like we did at the other places.” From a shelf he picks up a stuffed Gray and squeezes it. Take me to your leader, it coos. “What do you think of this, Kat?”
Kat smiles, but shakes her head. “We should get something that says last or final on it, you know? Something to commemorate the trip.”
“Good idea.” Bolo sets the toy back on the shelf. He’s nearest the check-out area, so he’s the first to notice me entering from the Employees Only break room and walking up to the counter. “And just the guy to ask,” he says.
“Afternoon, folks. Where you all hailing from? How many lightyears away?”
Bolo chuckles to keep up with the shtick. He ignores Glinn, who rolls his eyes, and answers. “Seattle. I can’t tell you how many lightyears, but it sure as hell is a lot of miles.”
“I’d say. What brings you to the great wide empty?”
“The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the ta-ruuuuuth,” Kat says. She wiggles her fingers like a sea witch casting a spell. With her hair and dark eyeshadow, it’s rather convincing. “We are close to one of the most well-guarded secrets in America. Maybe even the world.”
“That’s what she wrote on her Facebook group,” Glinn says. “What was the name of that group again, Kit-Kat? Gate Crashers? Truth Seekers? I don’t recall.”
“It was ‘Fifty-One for the People’ and you know it.” She shrugs her shoulders. “People talked about coming out here and storming the fences. The government couldn’t take us all out, right? Lemme see those aliens! But it was all a big tease. Nobody was actually going to do it. That would be crazy.”
I raise an eyebrow. “But coming out here on a road trip isn’t?”
“The curious Kat always wants to know,” she quips. “It did take a little finagling to get my brother and my boo to come along.” She leans against Bolo.
“You knew I was game,” he says.
She nuzzles him and grins. “Trevor, you get an A-plus in Boyfriending.”
“For the record, I was not game,” Glin says, “and still am not. My butt is chafed from riding in the backseat, and if I have to listen to another minute of some conspiracy theory podcast, so help me…”
“Easy, easy.” Trevor holds out his hands to pump imaginary brakes. “I’d say it’s been a good thing to get you out of the basement every now and then. See some sights.” He notes Glin’s pit stains. “Maybe get a new t-shirt.”
“At the expense of chasing tall tales, I think not,” Glin says. “Area 51 is the oldest hoax in the book. You know it, I know it…” He lowers his voice to a mock stage whisper, and tilts his head to me. “This guy knows it too.”
“An unsolvable mystery is good for business, I admit.”
“You see, Kat? You see?”
But Kat isn’t biting. She pushes off Trevor to stand on her own. She crosses her arms, and when the muscles there flex, her tattoo sleeve comes into focus. These aren’t your generic stock-photo robots in yoga poses. C-3PO holds downward-facing dog, a dalek from Dr. Who strikes a sun salutation, the Iron Giant meditates in lotus. These are serious—and seriously nerdy—tattoos, the referential ink of a diehard fan. Or perhaps just a diehard, period. She narrows her eyes at Glin.
“You mean to tell me that the U.S. government would go through the trouble of setting up a military base in the middle of nowhere if it didn’t have shady doings on the dockett? Spare me, please and thank you.”
“Shady? Yes, of course. Shady is the banner slogan for the government. But aliens?” Glin gestures around the gift shop, reminding us where we are. “Flying saucers? Come on. Occam’s razor would cut that argument to shreds.”
“The simplest explanation is best,” Trevor says. He eyes the jigsaw puzzles on a shelf. Their image is a topographical map of this desert area. A thousand-piecer in gradations of beige, which makes it pretty difficult. The middle bit is the saving grace and the joke. There is a distinct hole there in the puzzle. It’s the space where Area 51 should be but isn’t. “But why can’t aliens be the simplest explanation to set up a secret base?”
“You don’t know how Occam’s razor works.” He turns to me for support. “This is what I have to deal with back home.”
“You and me both,” Trevor mutters, much to Kat’s chagrin. They are road-weary to the point where this topic of bickering is old and worn. Still, he straightens up under Kat’s glare and says, “Alright, amendment then. What’s wrong with a little fat on a theory? Does it always work out that the leanest, meanest explanation for a phenomenon is always the right explanation?”
“If you don’t want to upend the foundations of science and logic,” Glin says.
Kat cocks her head. “A wee bit harsh, coming from you,” she says. “You wore out your DVD box set of Lost, and that show didn’t make a lick of logic by the end.”
“The writers were making up the mythology as they went along. They had to. And okay, there were plenty of plot holes and loose ends.” Glin pulls another pout. Like any good sibling, his sister has hit a sore spot where it counts. “But that was a make-believe. This is reality. More importantly, this is reality from the government. Do you think they could keep their story straight for decades and not slip up?”
I chime in. “That is a level of efficiency our country is not known for.”
“Exactly. This guy gets me.”
“Ah, but now you’ve fallen into a likely trap,” Kat says. She scans my face for tells, is disappointed by what she sees, and continues. “Incompetence from the government is so universal that you can accept it as fact. But is it a fact? Is it always? I don’t think so. What if, what if, back in the forties the government botched their cover-up of the Roswell crash on purpose? Swamp gas? Weather balloons? All of those explanations are so laughably lame for what was first reported.”
“So now you think the government is so smart it plays dumb?” Glin flaps his arms. A mild stink cloud of BO wafts in the small shop. “They created vague, silly theories to cover up a spaceship crash landing as a master plan…to do what? Create mystique? Sow confusion? Sell tchotchkes by the roadside? No offense, sir.”
“None taken,” I say.
Trevor, after having crinkled his nose from Glin’s stink or his argument, points to a poster on the wall behind me. I know it well. It’s a big seller on the website store, second only to the I Want to Believe image from that famous nineties show again. This poster is a blow-up of the very real front page from the Roswell Daily Recorder, with a headline that launched a million tabloid rags. RAAF Captures Flying Saucer on Ranch in Roswell Region.
“It can’t explain away the first account,” Trevor says. “Something crashed out here, and it sure didn’t seem from this world.”
“So far as they knew,” Glin says.
“Come again? What are you implying?”
Glin takes a deep breath, as if he’s preparing to explain calculus to a kindergartner. “I would imagine what crashed back then appearedas if it came from a Buck Rogers comic strip, to a layperson. People will jump to the wildest conclusions when it comes to dealing with the unknown. Martian spaceship? No way. Try new military technology. The government was testing something new toys out here, and when one failed, the g-men fumbled in keeping it out of the papers. Nothing more.”
“That’s a pretty effing big something,” Kat says. “So you’re okay with the government covering up their experiments so long as they don’t involve little green men?”
“I accept that they do plenty of things without us knowing. I’m not saying it’s right. I’m just saying it happens. But I know what they’re not doing out here.”
Glin opens a pudgy hand and ticks off his fingers.
“They’re not conducting alien autopsies. Or holding Big Foot in an underground bunker. Or keeping Walt Disney’s head in a cryogenic freezer. Or attempting to clone Elvis.” He tuts, shaking his head. “People love making stuff up all on their own. I bet the government loves it. All that secondhand crap buries any kernels of truth. Those crazy conspiracies help out Uncle Sam in more ways than any man in black ever could.”
Kat huffs and tosses her hair back from her eyes. “Unstoppable force, meet immovable object,” she says. “Can’t you just enjoy the mystery of a thing? For once in your life?”
“My enjoyment is based on solid premises,” Glin says. “Anyone can make something up. But if someone had some proof of the fantastic? Real evidence? Color me intrigued.”
“Okay then, fine.” Kat places her hands on the counter and takes a deep, namaste-level inhale. She squares her gaze at me. “This is the last outpost before the big show, where the fence cuts us off from going farther, at least not without getting shot on sight. What is it, ten miles away from here?”
“Six-point-two miles, in fact,” I say, because it’s true.
“You drive out here to the edge like it’s a normal job,” she says. “You must have seen things, haven’t you? Maybe odd happenings when you’re on a smoke break, or when you’re closing up. Can you tell me any stories?”
“I could,” I say, “but then I’d have to kill you.”
Kat struggles to smile at the joke. She’s running out of good humor. “Seriously, though, what have you seen out there? Any dark SUV’s on this road? Or military vehicles? What about bright streaks of light in the sky?”
There is a yearning edge in her voice. When it comes to the dedicated, she is the crème de la crème of the diehards. She wants me to confirm the dreams in her conspiracy-addled heart.
I am in awe of such fervent hope every time it passes across the face of a traveler who comes out here. But it also saddens me with what I have to do, which is the responsible thing when you get right down to it. I have to tell them what they need to hear.
“I haven’t seen any of those things, I’m afraid.”
Kat’s face loses color by degrees. “What about government agents? Men in black?”
“No. I doubt they’d come in for a keychain either.”
“Any strange noises? Loud, unexplained bangs?”
“The toilet backs up a lot, so the pipes knock.” I wince, knowing that’s not what she wants to hear. “Other than that, it’s pretty quiet.”
Now Glin is snickering behind his hand, and Trevor, trying to hide his disdain for him, watches Kat with wide, solemn eyes. Trevor can sense her desperation, the worry of striking out completely on the debate with her brother.
“Okay,” Kat says, “what about time? People have reported losing track of time, sometimes several hours at a stretch, with no recollection of what happened. Have you experienced anything like that?”
“I have, yes.”
A light flashes in her eyes. She hits the heel of her hand on the counter. “Nowwe’re talking. When have you lost track of time?”
“Honestly, I’ve lost count.” I didn’t mean to be funny that time. “Pretty much every week, though.”
“Yes indeed,” I say, “when I work inventory. If there aren’t any customers, I won’t look up from my paperwork for ages. I’ll tell you, time can be funny working out here by yourself.”
“Oh,” Kat says. The light goes out. “You’ve lost time while working.”
“Of course. How else did you mean it?”
“With alien activity,” she says. Her voice is monotone. “People report losing time if they’ve been abducted or been near any alien phenomenon.”
I scratch the back of my head, more out of embarrassment. “Oof. I’m sorry. I didn’t know that’s where you were going for with the last question.”
“No, no.” It takes all of her body to push up from the counter and stand. “It’s better that you didn’t know. You answered truthfully.”
“But it hurt.”
“The truth usually does.” She glances up at the headline on the Roswell poster, then closes her eyes. “Coming out here was a wild goose chase, wasn’t it?”
“Maybe,” I say, “but what’s life if you don’t try and catch a few wild geese?”
Trevor comes up to Kat, puts a hand on her shoulder. “We should get a move on. We have some hours to drive to Reno. If we’re going to get a photo at the fence…”
“We don’t need to go,” she says.
“What are you talking about? We drove out here for you to see it. Come on, ‘51 for the People.’” Over Kat’s downcast head, he glares at Glin. “It’s what we all want.”
Glin coughs, shifting from side to side. “That’s right. We’ve come all this way. It would be a shame not to see it.”
“Even if it’s hoax?” she asks. “Even if it’s just another tourist trap?”
Trevor nods. “We can at least go to say we went the distance. Journey’s better than the destination, right?”
Kat smiles. It’s weak but better than nothing. “You’re right. At least I’m seeing it with you two and not with some wackadoodle Facebook group.”
“We actually showed up,” Glin says. “It counts for something.”
I snap my fingers, remembering my job. “Speaking of which, I’ve got just the souvenir to honor the occasion.” From a drawer under the cash register, I pull out an item and plunk it down on the counter. “What do you think?”
It’s a bobblehead of the iconic Roswell Gray. The toy alien nods its oval head, its black almond eyes shining at the three of them. Kat leans down to read the small sign the Gray is holding in its four-fingered hands.
“The Last Stop is out of this World.” She chuckles. “This is the quintessential tchotchke. I love it. How much is it?”
“On the house.”
“We’ve got a million of em. You’d be doing me a favor by taking it off my hands. See the suction cup on the bottom? You can stick it on the dash of your car. Show off your prize.”
“It’s taking an honorary spot in the rental, that’s for sure,” Kat says. “Then it’s going on our daily driver in Seattle. Right, boo?”
“Anything you want,” Trevor says. He’s happy to see Kat’s in better spirits. He turns to me. “Thank you for this.”
“For coming all the way out here, you deserve it.”
I point out the porthole of the saucer. They all turn to see. The window frames the desert road in warm reds and browns from the afternoon sun. The heat shimmers in waves off the asphalt. But, through the haze of color and light, there are solid, shadowy forms. A tall barbed wire fence, a distant guard tower, a nondescript building that may or may not be an aircraft hangar. Pieces that make up the hole in the puzzle.
“Maybe you’ll find what you’re looking for,” I say. “Stranger things have happened.”
“I hope so,” Kat says. She picks up the bobblehead with the reverence of a religious artifact. “This world would be boring if they didn’t.”
The cantina ditty plays as they exit. Kat is in the lead, holding hands with Trevor; Glin holds up the rear, following with a little less angst. They all get in the car. Kat’s driving. Through the rear windshield, I see her fasten the bobblehead on the dash. The Gray stares back at me, nodding its head to say yes I am leaving with people who really want me, E.T. out.
The Prius pulls a K-turn, circles around the flying saucer, and gets back on the desert road. I watch from my porthole. The blue shiny speck of the car flashes under the sun. After a mile or so, it vanishes in the heat mirage.
An old corded phone sits next to the cash register. I pick up the phone from the cradle. I don’t wait for a dial tone. There is no dial tone. It would imply the phone is connected to a public network, which it is not. I punch in a code on the number pad and wait in the warm silence. A co-worker picks up.
“I see you had visitors.”
“Believe it or not.” I watch the wavering horizon. Have they gotten to the fence? In a souped-up little electric car, surely. “How’s the reception?”
“The little guy reads them loud and clear.” A pause. “One of them is rather whiny. He has quite a few opinions about you. None good.”
“Pot kettle black,” I say. “The woman is the one we’re interested in. She’ll keep the little guy with her, no doubt, which will make things easy. Eyes and ears.”
“Eyes and ears,” my coworker repeats. “How did you leave her?”
“Wondering,” I say. “Not as much as before, but close enough for government work.”
At that, we allow ourselves a quick chuckle on both ends of the line.
I continue. “She’s getting what she’s come here for. A picture. A feeling of accomplishment. And then back home to blab and blog to other diehards about getting oh so close to the truth.”
“Did she get close? In the ballpark?”
“To the actual truth?”
“There were moments,” I say, shading my eyes to look farther. Was that the blue speck near the guard tower? How long will they stay staring through the chain link fence at the obscure, faceless buildings? “But it’s the same with most. Focused on the hole, not the donut.”
“Let’s keep it that way.” Then the voice is gone. I hang up too.
“We always do,” I say. To the stuffed Grays, the raygun keychains, the Roswell posters, and cheap t-shirts. To myself. “Keep the customers satisfied.”
I stretch my back, thinking about coffee and lunch. I open the back door, the one with the sign that says Employees Only in the chemtrails of a cartoon flying saucer. The inside appears like a break room, until you turn a corner. There, a stainless steel staircase leads down down down deep. If you didn’t know where the lightswitch was, you would be helpless going down those stairs. But I do. I know where all the good stuff is.
If you knew what I knew, you couldn’t miss it.
M.C. St. John is a writer living in Chicago. He is the author of the short story collection Other Music. His stories have appeared, as if by luck or magic, in Burial Day Books, Dark Ink Books, Oddity Prodigy Productions, and Wyldblood Press. He is a member and contributing writing to the Great Lakes Association of Horror Writers. See what he’s writing next at www.mcstjohn.com.