“There’s an alien in the water tower.”
Jeremy Posey stood at the front door of Heather’s trailer, dressed in camouflage fatigues, glasses crooked on his sunburned nose. Above him, the sun passed its zenith and hung lazily in the western sky. His dirty-blonde hair caught the light and filtered it towards Heather in soft hues.
“Clyde found it, yesterday, floating right in the tank. I overheard him talking to Ronnie Pearson about it. You know the rooms in our house are thin as paper. He said it was light blue, the color of a vein. Tiny, but a big head. Ronnie said that made sense cause aliens are smarter than us, but if you ask me, it’s pretty dumb to end up dead inside a water tower.”
Heather waited, wondering where all this was going. With Jeremy, you never knew. He took the special ed classes in school, but it wasn’t so much that he wasn’t smart or couldn’t learn, it was more that he was just Jeremy. He would never fit in anywhere in life. His older brother Clyde just let him tag along because Jeremy would do his dirty work, like stealing whiskey from their father or sneaking up to Jenny Willoughby’s window to take pictures of her. Heather was Jeremy’s one friend, and even she could only take him in small doses.
“Anyway,” he said, after he caught his breath. “I thought you might like to see it.”
“So let me get this straight,” Heather said. “You want me to walk all the way through the woods, clear out to the train tracks to see something dead in a water tower?”
Jeremy smiled. He had a good one, and when he did it at just the right time, Heather always liked him, always wanted to root for him. “I got a feeling about this,” he said. “This could be big. But we’ve got to beat Ronnie and Clyde out there. Summer school lets out in like an hour. They’ll go to Clyde’s house to drink for awhile.” He glanced at the sky. “I’d say we’ve got until dark.” Reaching into the pocket of his shorts, he pulled out a slim, silver camera. “Digital. If this is what I think it is, I’m going to have pictures to prove it.”
“And what do you think it is, Jeremy?”
His grin widened. “An alien, of course.”
Heather laughed. Not at him exactly. No, his enthusiasm was revved too high for that. She laughed because she wanted to go, well she wanted to get out from under the same roof where she had spent the better part of a long, hot summer trying to avoid her mother and especially the men that came over in the afternoon.
She looked at Jeremy, his big smile still plastered across his face. Someone had given him a bad haircut. Probably Jeremy himself, considering he barely had enough money most of the time to get a roast beef sandwich at Hardees, and his dad didn’t believe in personal grooming. Despite all this, something was right about Jeremy. It was hard to say what, exactly, but it was there. She knew it.
“Okay,” she said. “I’ll go. But I want my name on any pictures you take. It would be nice to beat the Barrows to the punch.”
“Ronnie and Clyde.” Jeremy frowned like he sometimes did in class when he didn’t understand. “Never mind,” she said. “Let’s get out of here.”
Heather had no sooner said the words when an old blue truck spun its tires out on the road and turned down the worn gravel drive leading to her trailer.
Heather’s mother appeared framed behind the kitchen window, a silent face next to the smudged glass. Heather saw her take a drag of her cigarette and watch the truck roll toward the house. She did not look in Heather’s direction.
At a certain point, somewhere past the junkyard, out beyond the little pond that, over the years, had been used to dump the things even the junkyard didn’t want, the woods changed. But not just the woods. The things in the woods changed as well. Artifacts from a different world slowly began to appear: remnants of a car buried under kudzu vines; a pile of beer bottles so old the labels had faded into obscurity, bled white by the long sun; a pair of trousers, half buried in the mud. A plough had lain too long in the sun and turned a fleshy white so it appeared to Heather like a skeleton, wooden arms stiff and outstretched, grasping for something just out of reach.
“There’s a whole world back here,” Heather said.
“Yeah, my dad told me about it once. The water tower, these ruins, all of it was once a town. I forget the name.”
Jeremy shrugged. “Don’t know. I guess folks went in for trailer parks and electricity. No power out here. But it’s got something else.” He looked around. “Soul. Yeah. It’s got soul.”
“What? You know what I mean. You’ve been to places before that suck the soul right out of you before, right? Like the trailer park where you live. No soul. Soul sucking, but no soul. Except when it rains. Everyplace has got soul then.”
Heather grinned. Jeremy was right. This place did have soul. On their left, a creek weaved between the trees. A wooden fence leaned precariously over the water, one of its poles dangling free and occasionally dipping into the slight current. A snapping turtle lay sunning itself on a moss covered rock, and overhead the tall pines swayed mysteriously, giving Heather a pleasing touch of vertigo each time she looked up.
She saw how this might have been a community. The structures, little more than vine covered ruins, were sinking deeper into the earth with each passing year. The homes had been burned, the walls inside black and raw. Inside the least damaged, Heather found bedding and clothes and some dirty magazines.
“This is where David Masters and Jessica McKissick used to come,” Jeremy said. “Me and Ronnie used to climb that tree–” He pointed at a tall, leaning oak. “–and watch them. They put on a hell of a show. At least until she got pregnant.”
“Jessica McKissick? I didn’t know she was pregnant.”
“She was. Then she wasn’t.” Jeremy leaned over close to Heather and whispered, “I think she had an abortion, or maybe just got rid of it.”
“Did her parents know?”
Jeremy shrugged. “I doubt it. Ronnie and me and David, of course. We might have been the only ones. I could tell because she started wearing big sweaters and jackets and stuff. Anyway, once that happened, the show stopped.”
“It’s just hard to believe. How she could get pregnant and hide the whole thing from her parents,” Heather said. She was intrigued, especially by how a girl could get pregnant, have the baby, and her parents never be the wiser. “So, she got rid of it?”
Jeremy shrugged. “She doesn’t have a baby anymore. My brother saw her a few weeks ago. He said she definitely wasn’t pregnant.”
Heather thought of her mother, perpetual drink in one hand, half-smoked cigarette in the other. Thought of her mother’s long face, always so blank and uncurious, always ready to speak without thinking, to criticize without understanding who she criticized.
Heather tried to picture herself pregnant. Tried to think of how it would feel to have a life growing inside her, kicking and turning and needing. Would her mom notice? Possibly not. Weeks might go by without interaction between them. If Heather put a little more effort into it, she could go forever without her mother seeing her.
The last time Heather saw her father was two years ago, at the end of sixth grade. Because her mother wouldn’t take her, Heather had saved the money for cab fare and traveled down to the VA where her father lived full time. He’d been in the Gulf War and had come back with shrapnel embedded in the back of his neck and spine, but that wasn’t why he was off.
According to her mother, it was just his crazy gene kicking in.
“What happened to him,” her mother had said shortly after he was committed, “will happen to you one day, too.”
Heather, only eleven, wanted to know why.
“The stuff in your blood that makes you, you. You’re a Watson, Heather. You’ve got the same genes as your father. I should have known when I married him, his elevator would eventually get stuck.” She breathed out a long column of smoke, watching it drift lazily across the room. “Just like his father and his father before him.”
Heather didn’t see her father as crazy. In fact, she considered him — had considered him — the sanest person she knew time. Sure there had been moments when he seemed different, at odds with the world, but that was what made him special to Heather. They were alike in that way.
When she was nine, he’d taken her to Disney World, just the two of them. He told her she was a princess, just like the real ones.
“Real ones?” she’d said.
“Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty. All of them. You’re a princess too.”
“But they’re not real, Daddy.”
He smiled, surveyed the park, as if to spot one in order to prove his point. At that moment, the park seemed deserted, forlorn almost, in the twilight of the late afternoon. His smile dissipated, turned to a look of confusion. He touched her shoulder.
“You’re going and going until one day you find there’s no where to go.”
She waited, her nine-year-old mind, spinning, trying to make connections that were not there.
“You look in the mirror. You realize the person looking back is you. That’s when it falls apart.”
Heather said nothing. His smile came back. “Hey,” he said, “a princess.”
Heather followed his gaze, but she saw only the long shadows of the sun falling across the park.
The last time she’d seen him, at the VA, he had said nothing at all. He looked past her, his gaze fixed on the wall behind her, where a dark, mud-colored stain, possibly blood, had resisted all efforts to clean it. Her father’s lips moved soundlessly. He might have been praying. Or cataloguing all the ways such a stain might have ended up on the wall. He might have been reading some secret language in that stain, some otherworldly alphabet only he knew. Maybe, Heather would know it too, one day. This was what she liked to think when she thought about her father. He wasn’t crazy. Instead, he had uncovered the secrets of the world, lifting the veil over them and finding himself stunned to silence by what he had found.
A house appeared, shimmering in the distance, its eaves dripping with Spanish Moss, its front door stripped bare of paint, the color of flesh. The yard, if you could call it that, was a mess of trash and weeds, all tangled together with the undergrowth, which to Heather seemed to creep forth from the trees like sentient fingers searching for something to touch.
The smell was of man, not trees.
“Better steer clear,” Heather whispered. She knew there were meth labs out here. And crack houses. And other places that stopped being anything except dead ends. Dying places.
Too late. Jeremy had already seen something that held him mesmerized. Heather followed his gaze to the makeshift porch, where an old rocking chair creaked in the wind.
“That’s my dad’s hat,” he said.
A red hat lay in the seat of the chair.
A shadow moved inside the house past a window and was gone.
“Let’s keep going,” Heather said. But her heart wasn’t in the words. If she’d been in Jeremy’s shoes, she would want to investigate too. There was something about your parents, Heather thought: Whatever they did, they pulled you along too. Even out here in the woods, in the middle of a place that might as well not exist. You were always part of them, even when they stopped being part of you.
“Is this where he goes?” Jeremy said. “Don’t tell me this is where he goes.” His voice was angry but weak. A tear ran down his cheek.
“Maybe it would be better–”
“No. I’m going in.”
Heather followed him.
The door swung open soundlessly, revealing a darkened room. A naked woman lay on a couch, smoking something that did not look like a cigarette. She was old, her body wrinkled and crushed by gravity. She brushed long gray-black bangs from her eyes and exhaled a stream of smoke.
“Who are you?”
“Where’s my dad?”
“His hat is on the porch.”
The woman sat up, making no effort to cover herself. Her breasts, once large, now hung down her chest like empty bags.
“What’s your name?”
She nodded. “He never told me.”
“That he had kids?”
“That he had any other than the one that died.”
Jeremy looked at his feet. “There’s me and my older brother.”
The woman took another toke. “And little Sam.”
“He only lived for an hour.”
The woman leaned back on the couch and closed her eyes. Her knees opened, revealing a dark bed of hair between her thighs. Heather looked away.
“Yeah, but I hear it was a good hour,” she said, her eyes still closed, a look of complete relaxation on her face.
“Where is he?”
Without opening her eyes, the woman pointed to the back of the house. “Out where the graves are.” She took another drag.
Heather followed Jeremy down a short hallway and into a bedroom covered with clothes and trash and a smell Heather recognized as menstrual blood. A door on the other side of the room, swayed in a slight breeze.
Passing through the door was like passing into another world, or at least another time. The trees swallowed up the sun back here, forming a perfect canopy of dark green, like pictures Heather had seen of tropical jungles. It made Heather think of hiding under the covers with her father when she’d been a kid.
Jeremy sucked in a deep breath. Stood still. Looked at the clearing where a man lay on the ground, his arms wrapped around something, his broad back turned to them.
“Dad?” Jeremy said.
The man did not move.
Jeremy took a step closer. Heather waited, tense. Unsure how to stand. What to do other than watch.
There was no response, and for an instant, Heather thought he might be dead.
Jeremy crouched next to the man. Heather heard the woman’s voice behind them.
“He’s in the mud,” she said dreamily.
Jeremy turned and grimaced at the woman before reaching for his father. He grabbed his shoulders and rolled him over on his back. The man moved his head and mumbled something. But Jeremy wasn’t listening. His attention had turned to what his father had been holding–a rock, a crude marker. He knelt and read the inscription in silence.
The woman stood beside Heather now. She had a needle in her hand. The sharp point dripped with a fluid the color of honey. Heather watched as the woman plunged it into her own arm, squeezing the syringe, as her face went from serene to ecstatic to unknowing.
Once drained, the syringe fell from her fingers, and she stumbled past Heather. When she fell on top of Jeremy’s father, he barely seemed to notice. They lay together like that, still. Everything was still except for the tall pines agitated by the wind.
Jeremy stepped around them, his face wet with tears. He paused on the other side of their bodies, looking at them. The woman said something to him, but Heather couldn’t make it out. Whatever it was made Jeremy break. His shoulders drooped. His face twisted into a mask of agony. His thick glasses slid off his nose and landed in the grass.
He cursed loudly and reached for them, but came up empty. Heather started forward to help him, but before she could get there, in his blindness, he managed to crush them underfoot.
They’d been walking for nearly two hours when the rain began. The journey turned to a slow crawl, as Heather lost her way several times, and had to backtrack through the muck to regain her bearings. Jeremy was little help without his glasses, and the deeper they traveled into the woods, the more Heather seemed to lose her grip on the world she knew. The trailer park seemed far away, and more than that, it seemed unimportant, like a relic from the past.
As they walked, Heather thought little about the alien or the water tower. At this point she expected to find neither. Instead, her thoughts returned to snippets of sounds and images from the house they’d visited earlier. She kept seeing Jeremy’s father prone on the ground, arms flung around the grave stone, as if he might pull it into himself, and somehow embrace all of his might-have-beens. She saw him turn over, dead-eyed, and not recognize his own son. She heard the woman’s cigarette stained voice.
He’s in the mud.
Heather knew mud was a name for heroin. She’d learned that in health last year. And if she had to guess, based on the way the woman and Jeremy’s father acted, they were using heroin. The woman’s statement seemed to go beyond slang to describe where the man really was, as if he were trying to find his traction, trying to climb out of a pit where solid ground no longer existed, where one slip led to the next, until he was wallowing in it, drowning instead of moving.
This is what she was thinking when the trees parted at last to reveal a dark sky. The rain had turned to a fine mist, and a pale sliver of moon hung above the sunset. The water tower loomed in the distance on the other side of a wet meadow.
Like everything out here, rust held sway. The actual tank was roofless, whether from a storm or the hands of man, Heather could only guess. The corrugated tin had turned to a burnished red beneath all the rust. Four stilts held it off the ground, nudging the lip of the tank in line with some of the nearby treetops. Railroad trestles, eaten by time and weather, formed a half-realized path to the tower before disappearing in the high weeds.
“I see it,” Heather said.
Jeremy said nothing, but he quickened his pace. Heather knew the water tower had become like a totem to him now, a goal he had fixed in his mind. It mattered little what was actually there–most likely a dead bird, stripped of its feathers or a poor raccoon who drowned inside the murky silt.
Underneath the tower, water dripped from the slats overhead and landed on their upturned faces. On the other side, they found a badly mangled ladder. Several steps were broken or missing, but Jeremy felt around for one of the solid ones and began to climb.
Heather followed, pulling herself over the open spaces where the steps were missing, willing herself to the top where she joined Jeremy on the wooden catwalk. She peered over the lip of the tank.
Inside, past endless rivulets of corrugated tin, a shallow pool looked back at her. A foreign smell came up from the tank, causing Heather to hold her breath. She saw no alien. She saw nothing in the dark.
The tank shuddered as Jeremy grabbed the rim and shook. The water, dark and shiny as oil, lapped against the sides, but nothing surfaced.
He gave the tank another shake. “It can’t be too deep.”
“Maybe the Barrows were just bullshitting,” Heather said.
“No. There’s something here.” He pulled himself up. “I’m going in.”
Before Heather could stop him, a sound came from the logging road. She turned and saw a truck rumbling toward them from the east.
“Hurry,” she said. “I think your brother’s here.”
A thud welled up from inside the tank, followed by a groan of pain. “I’m in,” Jeremy said.
As Heather pulled herself over the rim, she looked at the moon. A gleaming silver arc, carrying the stars in the same way a mother carries her children, rocking them to sleep, singing the day shut, opening the night. As she fell, she told herself she would keep the moon in sight, a constant to guide her where all other markers had failed.
She hit the water and then the bottom, first with her feet and then when they couldn’t sustain the impact she crumpled to her knees, cracking them hard against the tank. Rolling over in the shallow water, she found the crescent moon, cradling the stars. The pain in her legs begged for her to scream out, but the moon calmed her like any good mother would.
“I think I messed my up my ankle,” Jeremy said.
“Don’t talk,” Heather said. “Look at the moon.”
“It’ll calm you.”
Jeremy turned his face up to the moon, its slivered shine opening his face up, glinting in the tiny space of his squinted eyes. Despite the pain, despite the smell, despite the terror she felt at being ridiculed by Ronnie and Clyde, this image of Jeremy was too much. He looked smaller somehow down here, but more defined, more in focus. The shadows hid his faults, the moonglow highlighted everything good about him and Heather could see now there was a lot good about Jeremy. Seeing him like this, now, in this other world made her feel like a part of something mysterious and grand, but also sad. A great, silent secret. She shivered.
Two doors slammed outside the tower. Voices boomed.
“You’re buying me a 12 pack if there’s nothing here, Clyde.”
“How about you buy me a case if there is?” Clyde said. He sounded confident. Heather looked around the tank, but it had grown even darker now and she could barely make out Jeremy, much less an alien.
“If I see an alien, I’m going to extract the bastard and sell him on eBay.”
“Well get ready to extract. Here. Take a flashlight.”
Heather heard them struggling up the ladder, cursing as they came to the missing steps. She had no idea what to do. In seconds, the flashlights would shine down here, exposing them.
She looked back at the moon, as if an answer might come from there. There was none. In fact, the moon had slipped away, obscured by the clouds. She thought of her father. Maybe that’s what happened to him too. Maybe the clouds had simply rolled in.
This thought made Heather angry, even while she found it soothing. If clouds rolled in, they could roll away. It made sense. But why had it happened at all? And why was she here in this water tank waiting to be humiliated? Heather felt the urge to hit something, to strike out.
Backing into the curved wall of the tank, she kicked it twice with her heels as hard as she could.
“Was that you, Ronnie?”
The voices were above them now.
“From down there.”
Heather knocked again, this time with her fists.
“You didn’t tell me the fucker was alive.”
A series of furious knockings came from the other side of the tank as Jeremy began to hit the walls. Heather joined him and together they made the tower wobble on its wooden legs. Soon she was throwing her body against the walls as the water sloshed around her knees. The sky was completely dark now and the stars seemed to list from side to side as they rocked the tank. At thirteen, Heather had never been drunk, though she imagined this was what it must feel like. The sky appeared to spin above her, to come loose from its fragile place. She had no idea how long this lasted. It seemed like forever.
When they stopped, Heather was soaked and exhilarated. There was little doubt the Barrows had split. To be sure, she calmed her breathing and listened. Outside, an engine turned over and tires scattered gravel.
“Awesome,” Heather said. Her words echoed in the dark tank, plinking off the tin walls, falling soundless into the water.
Jeremy said nothing. She heard him breathing nearby.
She reached for him in the darkness. He was there, beside her. Taking her shoulders, he turned her gently. At first, she thought he was about to kiss her, but rather than lifting her face up to his, he tilted her head down.
“There’s something touching my leg.”
The clouds around the moon dissolved. Moonlight played over the water, making the smallest ripples shine like silk. It was there, bathed in moonshine, near Heather’s feet. It had been there all along; she’d probably brushed against it without even knowing, unaware of the deadness against her legs. She felt a sudden urge to wipe them clean.
Jeremy spoke the question, even as it formed inside her mind. “What is it?”
Heather knelt for a better look. Blue and bloated, almost fishlike in the murky water. Hands splayed apart as if the creature had been pleading. Both knees bent, the creature’s feet in the air. Heather counted the toes. Ten. Ten fingers. She lifted her gaze to the head. Proportionally, too large for its body. The mouth hung open in a toothless scream. Its eyes were open in an expression Heather recognized, though for a time she could not place it. She bent closer, trying to read the eyes. What did they say? Where had she seen them before? Then the moon shifted or the clouds did, but whatever happened made the shadows creep away, and she saw her own reflection in the water staring up at her as if she were a different person, an underwater person, sharing the same body and personality and memories as her normal self. This underwater person, though knew all the secrets. And finally she knew where she recognized the eyes. They belonged to the girl staring back at her. The look, she understood now, was simple confusion and fear. Nothing so confusing and frightening as being born into death.
An arm fell around her shoulders. Jeremy knelt beside her, pulling her close. Together they gazed down at the creature.
“Is it an alien?” he said at last.
“Yeah,” Heather said, seeing them all in the water now, the baby, Jeremy, and herself. “It is.”