Chapter 1 and 2

Chapter 1: Friday Evening

“Are you ready for an adventure?”

When I got home from work and my friend Candice called wanting a girls’ night out, I almost declined, even though it was a nice enough Friday evening with nothing else competing for my attention. I was tired, the sort of tired that isn’t from physical or even mental exhaustion, but more from boredom with my past, present and future. I was looking forward to an open weekend, and all I wanted to do was take it easy and try to shake off this ennui or… perhaps some other French word. My life had a definite case of the blahs.

“But Julie,” Candice said, detecting my hesitation, “going out tonight is exactly what you need. Think adventure, Julie.”

Don’t get me wrong, Candice is a lot of fun, but we had lived in this rural setting long enough to know that our sense of adventure had to include a suspension of disbelief. Even Candice had to realize any adventure the little community college town of Glendive could have served us up tonight would be seen coming from a long way off. This was Montana, you know, Big Sky Country. And it was clear skies, my friend, rather pleasant and scenic but boring when you were tired of feeling lonesome.

However, because I have a tendency to withdraw from humanity and brood when I relax, I usually tried to give Candice the benefit of the doubt where free weekends and Friday nights were concerned. You see, I was the principal of the middle school in Glendive, and my days were filled with other people’s problems, usually of the early teenage drama variety. As you might imagine, that can get rather repetitious if not headache-inducing, and it had the added effect of making my own life outside of school administrating seem pretty dismal. I’d even say quaint, at best. So when Candice showed up to save me from enjoying hours of knitting on my couch with the company of my cat and old movies on TV or struggling in my hopeless little garden in my very spacious backyard, I surrendered to her whims of searching for fun or any kind of nightlife, really in the hope that something in my life would change.

Candice arrived on my doorstep much as she had always done since I moved here, with an ability to engage my enthusiasm while to a casual observer appearing to be socially withdrawn herself. (I want to get across that Candice is not what anyone would call “animated.” While the content of what she says might seem energetic, her delivery is anything but. It’s one of the many reasons that I love her and frequently find myself joining her on these excursions.)

“So are you ready to grab another Friday night by the balls?” Candice droned lethargically. By her tragic monotone, you would think that it was me dragging her out of the house. (In fact, that’s probably how she does engage my enthusiasm. Now I’m finally on to her!)

Bidding my cat goodnight, I locked the front door behind me. Candice drove, so I stretched out in the passenger seat of her little purple compact with big flame decals on the sides. She called it the Purple Testament. You’d never miss it if you drove through Glendive.

“I think Magellan likes it when you go out,” she smiled over the steering wheel. “He doesn’t have to follow all your house rules. Just lets his hair down and parties. Probably invites the neighborhood cats over, don’t you think?”

“I don’t think he does anything differently if I’m there or not. He’s at his same spot on the couch either way. And what rules? Don’t mess with my yarn, that’s pretty much it, and I keep it away from him so it’s never an issue. Besides, he doesn’t have any friends for a party. I wish he did. He lives a rather solitary existence.” Finally it hit me how depressed I sounded. Considering my content, it was just plain whiny. Was that really who I had become?

“Well, you sound like you’re on fire tonight. How was this week in adolescent land?” Candice worked at the community college’s library, so her clientele problems usually skew slightly older than mine.

“The adolescents are fine. They’re doing their thing. It’s usually working with the alleged adults that’s more of the problem these days. Oh, but it’s not them either. It’s not anything. I’m just… tired, I guess.”

“Then it sounds like this Friday night is desperately needed,” Candice nodded and we both sighed. “Otherwise Saturday morning will be left waiting for its cue.”

“What’s on the menu tonight?” I asked once I noticed she was driving us south, through town toward the community college.

“I thought we could try something different this time, if you trust me.”

I folded my arms across my chest. Sure, why not? Repetition seemed to be getting me down after all. Maybe some place new could catch life off guard. But how far was she planning to drive to get there? The next town in this direction was Miles City, over an hour away.

When she pulled into a parking lot, my first thought was that we had not driven far enough. When she parked, I realized she meant to go to the recently opened family restaurant that was known for its arcade. My soul moaned in despair.

“Oh, no, Candice. Not here. Not on a Friday night.”

“Why not? We haven’t tried it yet,” she said, shutting off the engine with an air of finality.

“Right, for obvious reasons.” I grabbed for her arm, trying to keep her in the car with me, but she opened her door and stepped out.

“What obvious reasons?” She blinked back at me, safely out of reach.

“It looks crowded…”

“Yes, it does. Can’t say that too often in Glendive.”

“… with families and too many young people, your students and mine. I like escaping with you on Friday and Saturday nights. But this isn’t escaping. It’s hard enough going anywhere else, but this… this is walking right into a trap!”

I wasn’t joking around, but I made Candice laugh. It wasn’t a mean laugh, but a big, honest one, which is very hard to get from her usually stoic demeanor, especially without trying to be funny. “Oh, come on, Julie. I doubt anyone is waiting to pounce on us in there. However, if you want to look at it that way, it makes it sound more like an adventure, I guess.”

I angrily got out of the car, shutting the door with some force for emphasis but not slamming it. (I would never!) I glared at her across the car’s roof. “Why did you bring me to a family restaurant slash arcade on a Friday night, for crying out loud?”

“I heard there is a bar inside.” She leveled her stare back at me. Now I’m a principal, and she’s a librarian. I realize you might think a principal should win such a staring contest, but I’m asking you to really think about it for a moment. She’s a librarian.

Once inside, we said nothing, avoiding the smiles of the serving staff, making our way to this reputed bar. I tried not to focus on the families dining or playing games, for fear of recognizing anyone and making eye contact. I also tried to block out the chatter as well. Tonight, I did not feel like hearing, “Look, there’s my principal!” Or “Joseph, isn’t that your principal, Miss Whatshername?” Instead I willed my vision blurry to everything but the wood paneling and bizarre carpet patterns. The arcade noise sufficiently drowned any exclamations I might have overheard from the tables we passed.

There were about twenty patrons around the bar, over half of them male. They all looked a bit on the youthful side, ostensibly college seniors or the rather small local single set still in their 20s, standing around between the bar and the small tables surrounding the bar. Considering Glendive’s population, Candice had found one of the few parties in town; I’d give her that. A somewhat ornate half wall separated the bar area from the rest of the restaurant and arcade, but the bar was centrally located, and from there you could see everything else in the place. And that meant the rest of the restaurant could also see anyone at the bar, especially newcomers trying to push in.

“Well, what do you think?” I halted a few steps away from the standing crowd, praying that Candice would see my pained expression and give me a break by suggesting we leave immediately.

“What do you mean? You want to get a drink first or play skee-ball?” Her half-opened eyes told me there would be no sympathy; she was doing this for my own good. Or she was doing this for herself, and to hell with my hang-ups. I used to be able to have fun. And with that thought, my brain suddenly rebooted.

“Drink first, then skee-ball.” I released the tight grip on my purse strap and let it hang from my shoulder. I gave into a numbed sensation of falling.

“Right,” Candice led the way, adding “Excuse me” to the men she gently steered between to meet the bartender’s eyes. I floated close in her wake. Two minutes later, with drinks in hand, we turned around to find the tiny tables against the half wall, and we took our seats. Two handsome young men standing near our table noticed us and called out hellos. While I greeted them in return, the thought flashed through my mind that I might be their combined ages. Oh, my life has come to this, has it? I tasted my whiskey sour and gave a sad little smile to Candice. “You’re really down,” she said, tilting her head at me in analysis. “What the hell’s wrong with you?”

“I’m scared,” I quickly answered without thinking about it. I didn’t have to worry about being ashamed that someone might overhear me. The noise of the place was deafening.

“You should be. I’m probably the biggest badass you’ll ever go up against at skee-ball. But we can play cooperatively instead of competitively, if that will make you feel better.” Candice didn’t even smirk while eyeing me.

“You don’t understand: this is their turf. I can’t come here and socialize. Besides, socialize with whom? College kids?”

“Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it,” Candice deadpanned, and my eyeballs bulged. Finally she snickered. “Hey, maybe we can find you a professor if you don’t want to rob the cradle.”

I drank some more, and accidentally caught the eye of one of the guys next to our table. He caught me looking, so I smiled and nodded. He did the same. He was standing like a foot away. God, I felt awkward.

“Ms. Clemons! Hi! My family’s sitting right over there!” Twelve-year-old Brittany yelled over the half wall, startling me. “I thought it was you! Hi!”

“Hi Brittany. How are you?” I put my drink down and smiled pleasantly. It was probably a lot more genuine of a smile than the man beside me just got, even though my heart dropped a few inches inside me.

“What are you doing?” Brittany asked with complete innocence.

“Same as you,” I kept smiling, “it’s Friday night. Time to have fun.”

“Okay. Gotta go! Bye!” And off she ran. Candice glared after her, and then looked back at me.

“Want to kick her ass at skee-ball?”

“Sure,” I said, and finished my drink.

Over at the skee-ball ramps, Candice and I kicked plenty of ass, so to speak, and I bumped into a few more of my students. I’m not sure why I was so uptight about running into the kids. It’s not like I had anything to lose here. Maybe it was because I didn’t feel properly dressed for the environment. If Candice had briefed me, I may have eased back on the make-up and picked more comfortable, practical and sporting attire that didn’t include strappy heels. But I finally loosened up. As women have done proudly throughout history, I conquered an activity while wearing clothing and footwear that put me at a distinct disadvantage. Now count my huge stack of tickets, Mister Ticket-Munching Machine.

At the prize counter, Candice and I decided to pool our plunder to have a go at a bigger prize. We both spied a doll that would fit into my collection (I choose not to elaborate about that for the moment) that required ten thousand tickets, and we were a few hundred short. After a meaningful glance back at one another, we went back to play more skee-ball. That is why one should always go to the prize counter first and determine one’s goal. I neglected to do that this time because I was off my game. But I was back, at least for a few more minutes.

Once we hit the required number of tickets, we returned for the restaurant exclusive themed doll, a little girl with a sparkling miniskirt, glasses and a sweet smile. My little hipster gamer girl. While the tired-looking employee turned around to take the doll off the shelf, I made eye contact with a man beside me who looked familiar. His family was next to us, and his oldest son went to my school, so I knew I had seen him before. We recognized each other and nodded, and I caught something in his face that hinted at what he was probably thinking and trying to hide. He knew me as his son’s principal, and he may have noticed that I was unmarried, and I’m turning in skee-ball tickets for a doll with my girlfriend. I was dressed up in a skirt and heels and makeup, and Candice was in jeans and flats. While Candice’s sweater was very nice, I did feel rather femme in this outing. Maybe I was imagining it all, maybe I was making too much of a deal about it, but my heart was beating with concern and I felt uncomfortable as I accepted the gamer girl doll and thanked Candice and desperately wanted to leave.

“It seemed like you needed another smile,” Candice said, with honest feeling creeping into her voice. She and I are friends, and she was cheering me up, and to hell with whatever this guy thought. If he wasn’t thinking that we were a gay couple (and so what if he was?), then we were two single women in this little community college town, which we were. That’s right, I thought, we are the damned. Whatever, I just wanted to go home.

I guess the best thing about our Friday night out was that the drive home wasn’t very long. I didn’t want Candice to drive me back in silence. I didn’t want her to feel bad about trying to help me have fun and enjoy myself. So I tried to talk about anything, reflecting on our adventure in some positive way, but that only made it sound more pathetic as I grasped at straws. I was barely paying attention to what I was saying. I was babbling. I made myself stop when my voice suddenly hit a snag and faded out in mid-sentence in a very miserable way.

“At least your kids recognize you, and they don’t consider you unapproachable,” she offered meekly, struggling herself to put a good spin on the evening. I could feel that I was very close to bursting out in tears, but I couldn’t do that to Candice. I could get her crying too, and then I’d never forgive myself. Besides, neither of us might be able to stop once we started. It was a short drive, just a few more minutes and we would say good night, and then I could cry myself to sleep with my cat. I would have the weekend to recover. I was staring down at the little girl doll in my lap when Candice pulled into my driveway.

“Are you going to be all right?” She shut off the engine and looked at me. “I don’t remember ever seeing you this down.”

“I’m okay.” We hugged as best friends can hug, leaning across the shifter and her CD collection stowed between the two car seats. “I’m okay.” I was able to keep from crying, because I realized happiness was here in our friendship. The thought that my work was all I had was probably what had been getting me down, and that was just not true. “I’m okay, Candice.”

We let go and leaned back, and Candice gave me another look with a raised eyebrow, just to make sure I was being honest. I told her, “I’ve got my new doll, thank you, and Magellan is inside waiting on the couch, so I will be all right.”

“Any plans tomorrow?”

“Taking it easy.” Big sigh.

“Well, call me if you want. I’m sure I’ll be swamped with craziness,” she said, shaking her head lethargically and rolling her eyes. “Come check out a book or something. Take a walk to see me, for lunch or anything. Enjoy the freedom that this librarian envies.”

I nodded and made my little doll wave goodbye.

“What are you going to name her?”

“Persephone.” I answered without hesitation. I hadn’t thought about it. Names come to me like that.

“Ah, yes,” Candice intoned like a professor. “Plucked from a meadow to spend half the year in the underworld with her husband Haides on his throne, while the rest of us are forced to endure winter. Good name.” Librarians. They don’t have to teach us anything, but it’s all there if you want it.

I got out of the car and watched the Purple Testament back out of the driveway. We exchanged a little wave through her window, and off her taillights trailed. I listened as her motor grew distant, and breathed in the silence that filled in. It was a clear night with a bright full moon, the otherwise black sky was full of shining stars, and it was very quiet. I looked up for a while. Very pretty, the universe. Then I glanced around the sprawling countryside vista that was home for me now. Wide open and empty. A bit like outer space, I would imagine. There was probably slightly more vegetation and houses here, I’d wager, but not much more. I was not that far from the center of town, but still not close to much of anything really in this neck of the world. Well, I thought, exasperated, I am tired.

I went inside, and Magellan acknowledged me from the couch. I showed him the new doll, and then I placed Persephone on a shelf between similar dolls, taking my time to rearrange them and make her feel welcome as the newest addition. I was sure she would be very popular.

I am not crying my eyes out tonight, I told myself. That would be nothing but a pity party, wouldn’t it? But as I took off my makeup, a wave of self-pity washed over me, and by the time I put on a knee-length sleep-shirt, I was crying. Just a little bit. I avoided catching sight of myself in the mirror. I didn’t want to see the red-rimmed eyes staring back at me, helpless. I sat on the couch and turned on the TV just to have it on. I picked up whatever knitting project was currently on needle in my bag beside the couch, and then put it back down once Magellan climbed into my lap and got comfortable. He usually stayed on his side of the couch and let me knit, but whenever I was feeling particularly down, it was normal for him to pay me a special visit like this. I tried to focus on the television, but instead I just petted my cat and cried. And I felt better after doing that.

I collapsed onto my pillow at 1:09 a.m., quickly checking the clock radio to make sure the alarm wasn’t set, and I waited for sleep to overtake me. My eyes were dry by then, and with a sigh that echoed around the bedroom, sheer exhaustion seemed ready to overwhelm my agitated mental state. Slowly I felt myself fade away, and then something pulled me back momentarily. In the usual natural silence that dominated this part of the world, I thought I heard a distant noise that seemed out of place. Not caring, I turned over, hoping for oblivion by adjusting my sleeping position, and closed my eyes.

Suddenly the house jolted, and I was wide-awake, conscious of a rumbling sound and a general shaking of everything. An earthquake! I heard Magellan scampering out of my bedroom and through the darkened house. To my right, I saw a shadow on the wall of myself sitting up in bed, with the shadow steadily becoming more defined by a growing light source ostensibly on my left. I turned to my left to see a distant glowing fireball through my bedroom window, which looked out onto my normally peaceful backyard and the picturesque field beyond. A plane! A burning plane was crash landing and skidding through the field behind my house, heading straight for me!

Chapter 2: Middle of the Night

By the time I snapped into flight mode and leaped out of bed, the fireball was crashing through the fence in my backyard. The rumbling was violent, and the fiery light built to a bright flash that lit up the house from behind me as I raced to the front door, unlocked it and threw it open. I did not look back, running out onto my front lawn, making a diagonal across it toward my closest neighbor’s yard and the street, in case the plane smashed right through my house behind me. I was crying very different tears now, out of fear for myself and grief that I hadn’t had time to scoop up Magellan. I had left the front door open, so hopefully…

Once I was in my neighbor’s yard, I started to slow down. The rumbling had stopped. I looked back as I came to a halt, still taking panicked breaths with my heart pounding. There was a flickering, orange glow coming from behind my house. Without thinking, I spun around and sprinted through the grass for the backyard, gasping for air. My neighbors’ houses were dark, and I remembered one or two of them were out of town. But the Andersons should have been home, and even at this distance and time of night, they should have heard the impact and felt the rumbling. They should have been awake by now, I thought, they should have seen the glow.

I rounded the corner of my house. In the bright moonlight, I could see what appeared to be a rather small, black fuselage (maybe fifteen feet long) sitting in the middle of my formerly pathetic garden (now a pile of dirt) only a few yards from the back of my house. The glow I had seen before must have been flames, but there were no flames now. The downed craft had plowed a trench through my backyard from an 8-foot-wide hole in my fence to its resting place in the garden. From the size of the narrow cockpit, it would have to be for a single pilot, I thought, as I gathered confidence to approach it.

Then POOF! Part of the smoldering black fuselage vaporized in a flash of light, startling me when my heart had yet to slow down. I gasped, waiting a moment before continuing my approach, and then POP! Another blackened section flashed away into nothing. Pausing again, I looked back along the trench, noticing there were no bits of wreckage that I could see anywhere, including wings that were obviously missing from the wreck. Nothing was burning in the field beyond my fence, and other than the damage to the ground and the fence, the plane didn’t appear to have left anything behind of itself. Perhaps it was too dark to see the wings lying back in the field or maybe directly behind the rest of my fence that was still standing.

Looking at the smoldering wreck in front of me, I jumped as another section vanished in a bright light, like flash paper. Okay, I thought, I get it now. Somebody made a glider out of flash paper, and they lit a cigarette during a night flight, right? I was beginning to think this must be some bizarre dream…

Suddenly the cockpit split apart when I was a few steps away, parts of it flashing out of existence in its continuing disintegration. I looked down at what was left: the shriveling black sections that remained of the curling, shrinking fuselage around the darkened reclining figure of the pilot. He (I guessed the pilot was male based on his size and shape) wasn’t moving, covered in a dark flight suit, gloves and opaque black helmet. I peered down into the shallow crater at him, and his head twitched, as if I had surprised him. His arms started working from side to side in very small motions, as if he was stiff and struggling to move. I jerked back instinctively.

“Oh, it’s all right! You’re safe, Miss!” A strained voice drifted from the helmet, which was now missing its front plate. I could see the pilot’s face now, peering out of the helmet at me. It was the face of a young man with blue eyes, which were far more animated than the rest of his body. “Sorry if I scared you. Just give me a minute to get myself together.”

“You probably shouldn’t try to get up,” I heard myself warning him. “That was a really hard landing.” I knelt down beside the crater. “Are you in pain?”

He laughed, wincing a bit at the end. “You could say that. I’m pulling through, though. Just need a few more minutes. Thanks for coming to check on me.” He gave me a weak smile.

"Well, you almost crashed into my house. What the heck were you flying anyway?" I started to step down into the crater, wanting to make sure he wasn't bleeding out or something. I couldn't just stay there looking down at him if he was dying.

"Uh, maybe you should stay up there a little longer. I'm still utilizing some of this," he said in the tone of a gentle warning.

I froze, staring down at him, completely confused, and then another two sections of his charred plane went POOF and disappeared. I stood up on the edge of the crater, feeling dazed.

"I should go call 9-1-1," I said, nodding back at the house, taking a step away.

“What?” He looked at me bewildered.

“You may need an ambulance,” I said, about to turn away from him.

"No, Miss, please don't," he pleaded. His helmet was now missing parts over the top of his head and around his chin. "If you could avoid calling anyone, I would appreciate it. I'm sure to get into a lot of trouble for this, and I will definitely make it up to you by fixing your yard and fence, whatever you need. It's just... if we get a doctor or the police involved, they are bound to have a lot of questions."

"I have a lot of questions," I said, quickly growing angry, putting my fists on my hips and glaring down at him. "Who the hell are you? What were you flying? You could have killed someone, and it could have been me!"

"Look, I know. You're right, of course. I’ll tell you everything. I just need another minute to heal." The last remaining part of the ship popped away from behind him with a noticeably bluish flash (as my eyes adjusted to them), but his body remained rigid in its sitting position in the hole at the end of the trench. Watching his body, I started to make out this strange blue light that seemed to come from inside his dark flight suit, which had at first appeared black like the ship but slowly began to appear lighter and more grey. His helmet was mostly gone too, and I could see his golden hair. I hated to admit it, but I felt my anger dissipate, replaced by growing curiosity. Was it because I had never seen anything like this before, and I was still half asleep but with my heart pounding? Or was it because he was rather handsome? He didn't take his eyes off me, and he smiled sheepishly.

I sighed and shook my head at him. "Start talking, or I'm going to get my phone now." A cool breeze drifted by, and it suddenly occurred to me what I was wearing and the angle which he was looking up at me, so I quickly pressed one arm across my chest and the other arm down the front of my sleep-shirt, just in case.

"All right, take it easy. I’ll explain, but it’s probably going to sound like a bunch of hooey to you, I’m afraid,” he shook his head, and what had remained of his helmet was gone. It had simply faded away while I was looking down at him. Then he sighed and looked back at me. “Could you start by telling me the year?”

“What?” I thought for sure I had misheard him.

“What year is it?” His eyes searched my stunned expression, and then he tried to stand, but instead fell face first into the dirt, giving out a muffled yelp of pain. I hurried down into the trench to grab him, feeling my uprooted vegetable plants snag at my bare feet in the dirt. I bent down and pulled him up as gently as I could so he wasn’t breathing dirt at least. His expression and the noises he was making made it clear that he was in tremendous pain. I probably shouldn’t have moved him, but he was on his knees and I was holding him up so he didn’t face plant again.

“Where does it hurt?” I was worried about his neck, his spine, etc. He could be all broken up inside. Why hadn’t I called 9-1-1?! Why had I stayed there listening to him babble incoherently?

“It’s my ribs,” he hissed and swallowed. “I think I just cracked a couple, that’s all. It’s going to hurt for a while, but I’ll be okay. Can you help me out of this hole?”

Slowly, we got him standing, and with a lot of time and effort on both our parts, we trudged up out of the trench and into the grass. We rested for a minute, and then began the journey of a few yards to the back door. He was sweating, and he reeked of that musty man smell that I hadn’t breathed in for quite some time. His hair was damp with sweat, as we lightly bumped heads a couple of times when he leaned his full weight on me and I staggered a bit.

“I’m sorry,” he said twice. “I’m really sorry about this.”

“You’re doing fine,” I tried to encourage him as I heard him grind his teeth while he winced. “See, we’re almost there. I’ve got a nice big couch for you to stretch out on.”

“I hate that you’re having to…” he trailed off as we stumbled again. “I mean, thank you, Miss. Thank you very much for this.”

“My name is Julia.” Shouldering him a few steps from my back door, I suddenly felt the need to introduce myself.

“Oh,” he laughed, “where are my manners? My name’s Louis Nelson. It’s nice to meet you, Julia. Thank you again.”

“You’re welcome, Louis. It would have been nicer to meet you under different circumstances, I must admit.” My voice sounded a bit more testy than I’d intended, but he was starting to get very heavy.

“Amen to that. You must be thinking that I’m the biggest dumb baloney you’ve ever had in your backyard!”

“That’s not exactly what I was thinking,” I said as we reached the back steps.

Of course, the back door was locked, so I set him down on the steps and ran around to the front of the house to the wide-open front door. For a moment, I panicked about Magellan, but he mewed at me from under the couch after I shut the front door and turned on a light. Sighing with relief, I hurried to the back door and carefully opened it without knocking the pilot off the steps. He had removed his gloves, and he smiled up at me. He was still rather wobbly as I got him on his feet again.

“I really think you should see a doctor,” I implored, steadying him as I helped him up the back steps into the house. How long could I put him off until I had to demand that whatever trouble he might get into wasn’t worth his health or his life?

“I know you’re concerned about my health, ma’am, and I appreciate it. But my health is being mended as we speak, and unless there have been certain advancements in medical science which have an amazing coincidental nature to them, I might be a medical mystery to any hospital these days.”

Obviously he was suffering from a concussion, I thought, and this was him raving. Best thing to do was get him on the couch and call paramedics from another room. He wasn’t going anywhere without help. He was weaker than a kitten. As I got him to the couch, he stepped up his pleas, possibly due to my silence and fretting face. He was reading me, I could tell; he kept looking into my eyes.

“As a for instance, you don’t know of any energy-based healing mechanisms in hospitals at this time, do you?” I eased us both down on the couch. There. We both sat together for a moment, sighing. I finally shook my head at him, having solved the first problem, and I had been half tuning him out since the crater. He just wasn’t making much sense. It worried me that he was probably suffering from head trauma.

“Now, I’ll go and get you some water or something,” I got up, and he caught my hand, holding me there. His grasp felt very weak. I knew that I could break free from him instantly if I wanted.

“Thank you, ma’am. I really appreciate everything you’re doing for me.” He gave me another broad, but rather mournful, smile with big sad eyes. Normally I’m a total cat person, but here was a classic case of being overwhelmed by an adorable puppy dog face. He glanced around and then dropped his voice to a whisper. “I apologize for waking you up like this and imposing on your hospitality. I hope I’m not disturbing the rest of your family.”

“There’s nobody else here. Just my cat.” If he had seemed any kind of a threat, I would have felt uncomfortable admitting this to a stranger in my house, but he continued to exude honesty and harmlessness. He nodded with a more serious look on his face, as if he worried that he had embarrassed me, and he leaned back on the couch slowly, sighing uneasily, wincing a few times in pain. “Can you take off the flight suit?” I asked nervously, still worried about trying to assess any internal injuries. “You really should check yourself right away,” I put my hands on my hips and then fidgeted to cover myself again. I really should go put on my robe, I thought.

“I don’t know. Maybe this flight suit is all that’s holding me together,” he winked at me and started to laugh and winced. “I’m kidding, of course. I’m just afraid I stink to high heaven. I’ve been in this thing for a long time.”

“Well, we need to check you out, or I’m calling an ambulance now.” I decided to go for a robe, demanding this over my shoulder, in order to add emphasis to the threat. I didn’t know why I was even waiting on him to agree to anything. The man could die on my couch. When I got back from my bedroom tying my robe closed, he had dutifully unzipped his flight suit about half way, but was struggling to make any further progress. I sat beside him and began to help with the zipper, gently, until suddenly a static crackle of bright blue light seemed to explode out of his lower abdomen, frightening a cry out of me. His hands reached out and held mine, otherwise I might have fled the couch completely.

“It’s all right, ma’am. That’s what is working on me. Helping me heal whatever got busted up when I touched down in that field.” He looked into my eyes, searching and worried.

“I don’t need any more scares tonight, thank you,” I told him, trying to relax my breathing. The blue glow from inside his flight suit dissipated. I could see that he was wearing a dirty white tank top under the suit. As I looked into his open flight suit, another streak of bright blue static electricity crossed his stomach. I didn’t jump as much this time.

“See? That’s all. Now I better explain everything, even though it’s going to sound crazy. I don’t want to scare you. I just want you to understand who I am and how I came to be here.” He swallowed and cleared his throat. I pulled my hands out of his and folded them in my lap. We maintained steady eye contact, which made me feel unusually calm, considering the circumstances. I found his blue eyes and kind face relaxing. ”That out there in your backyard was an alien rocket, made out of this special material we probably don’t have here on Earth. But I am not an alien. I’m from Akron, Ohio.”

“Oh, well then,” I laughed nervously, and he laughed back, a bit nervously too.

“A few years ago, I was roughing it on my own, you know, in the middle of nowhere, and I see this dogfight overhead. This crazy shootout between two super-fast weird-looking planes, it seemed to me. Well, they shot each other down, and one of them lands closer to me, which turned out to be the good one because I found out later that he was shooting down a bad kind of alien who was trying to invade Earth, see? Then this bigger ship lands to pick up their guy, and before I know it, I’m making friends with three aliens from outer space!” He popped his eyes at me with an expression that told me he knew how unbelievable it sounded. Pausing, his eyes searched my face. After a moment, he decided to keep going.

“They have this strange way of communicating with me, with these floating pictures. They seem to be trying to tell me that they protect the Earth from these bad aliens who are kind of like pirates. The good aliens ask if I want to come join them, to save the Earth from invasion. Well, I was feeling a bit lost at the time, you know, after the war, no family really to speak of, so I said yes. I didn’t realize at the time what kind of investment this job was going to be, and of course it changed my life. I’ve been flying around our solar system, shooting down these bad aliens before they get too close. I’ve been part of this sort of good guy alien squadron. I’ve been doing it for a few years now.”

I nodded at him, but it was more like I was trembling, feeling fragile and exhausted, unable to believe what was happening to me, unable to process it all. He seemed to read this and reached over and patted my knee, picking up my hands again. We never broke eye contact.

“I understand how nutty it sounds. I know it’s nutty, but you saw the ship. It winked out like that because the energy suit I’m wearing, well, under this flight suit, it was absorbing the special alien material in order to process the energy needed to heal me. That crash did tear me up pretty bad, but my friends have all kinds of amazing energy tools to keep me alive, and this one,” he pointed to his abdomen, “is still working on me. And I don’t think it would be a good idea for me to try to take it off. In fact, I probably couldn’t take it off if I tried. So, I’d prefer to let it finish healing me, and as soon as I can walk by myself, I’ll be on my way. Or better yet, if you could show me the way to a bus station or something, I could get out of your hair. They still have buses, don’t they?”

“Well yes,” I said, frowning at him.

“I doubt any doctors here have seen anything like this, and I don’t want to give my alien friends away. They like working in secret, you see? They don’t want to bother us, they just don’t want any space bullies picking on us. Kind of like us stopping dirty Jerry from muscling in and trying to take over Europe, right?”

“What?” I blinked at him, exasperated.

“Oh, you know, the Germans. Hitler’s boys. Have there been any other big wars since then?” He tilted his head with his blue eyes perfectly innocent. That had been an honest question.

“How long have you been gone?” I asked, now ready to hear anything.

“For me, it’s not been that long. It’s hard to tell the real passage of time when you’re in space constantly, but I swear, it’s like I’ve just been flying from shootout to shootout, maybe a couple hundred or so since those guys took me up and fitted me with my own rocket. I figure it’s been about three years, for me at least. Kind of like a second tour of duty. However, what my alien friends told me is that when you fly as fast as we’ve been going, like close to the speed of light, trying to head off the other fast-moving invading ships, Earth time goes by a lot faster by comparison, sort of. I think I understand what they mean, but it seems a strange concept to get through your head, you know? I’m gone like three years, zipping here and there so fast that a lot more years are passing back here. What is the date, by the way?”

I told him. He returned my stare, like he was trying to make sense of what I’d said. I knew the feeling.

“Wow, that doesn’t even sound like a year to me,” he laughed while I stared at him. “It’s going to take a while to get used to that. It’s like science fiction or a fantasy number or something. Have you gotten used to it yet? Well, of course, you’ve had a few years to get used to it, I suppose. Shucks, that certainly makes me old enough to retire, I guess. I don’t have a ship anymore, so I might as well.” He smiled and laughed again, patting my hand.

“When did you leave?” I finally got myself to speak.

“1947. It was June, I think. I had lost track of the days. I had been wandering around after getting discharged, like a lot of guys. I was kind of, I don’t know, uncertain about the future. I’m hoping everything worked out okay while I was gone. I’m glad there’s a country to come back home to at least. Are you all right? Maybe we both need some water.”

Again, he was reading me really well. I got up and made it to the kitchen, overwhelmed. I gulped some water, trying to stop my head from spinning for a moment. Then, resting against the side of the sink, I tried to order my thoughts. There was a man, a young man, who was saying that three years ago he left with aliens in 1947, but he was currently sitting on my couch, healing from wounds he received crashing in my backyard in an alien spaceship, which apparently dissolved into energy in order to help heal his internal injuries through some alien energy life vest or something.

It took me a minute, but I finally thought I got a handle on it. I poured him a glass of water, and brought it to him.

“Thank you, ma’am. You feeling better?” I remained standing next to the couch as he drank some water. “You must be reeling right now,” he said, smiling up at me.

“Yes, I am. Of course I am! Why wouldn’t I be?!” I shouted, feeling like I was waking up more.

“Oh, you should. I know it’s nutty as hell. Here, won’t you please sit down and talk to me some more? It feels so good to be with another human being again. I mean, it hasn’t been decades for me, but it’s still been a couple of years or so,” he said, patting the cushion next to him.

I felt like pacing. I was upset, agitated. I didn’t know what to do, but I wasn’t ready to calm down, even though he was still speaking calmly. He watched me with a sad expression, holding his glass of water.

“Gosh, you’re probably tired,” he said, shaking his head. “It’s the middle of the night. I’m sorry. Look, if it’s all right with you, I can just sleep here on the couch and not bother you any more tonight. Unless you want to talk some more, but you probably need your rest.” He set his glass on the end table next to him and leaned back on the couch slowly, wincing with pain. I worried about a possible concussion, and I imagined him passing out and never regaining consciousness. And I’d have a dead stranger on my couch. What was his name again?

“Louis,” I said, finally remembering it and calming down, “we can talk some more if you want. I’m still very concerned about your injuries, though. Is there a way we can assess your health with this… energy thing you’re wearing?”

“Hmmm, that’s a good idea,” he said. “Let’s give it our best shot.”

I helped him sit up again as I rejoined him on the couch. He looked down at his abdomen, and then began to wiggle his shoulders out of his flight suit. I saw what he was trying to do, and helped pull his arms out of the suit. The top part of his grey flight suit was now crumpled around his waist, and Louis sat up in his sweat-stained white tank top. He slowly gripped his shirt at the abdomen, and groaned as he pulled it up to his chest. Blue electricity flashed over his pale torso, but I was getting used to the flashy light show. Looking through the lights at his white skin, I thought this was obviously someone who had not been getting much sun for a while. I helped him pull the slightly damp shirt off over his head, and he thanked me as his arms dropped wearily down to his sides again. I tossed the shirt over to the other side of the couch. A wave of his musty odor hit me. I must admit it wasn’t entirely unpleasant. My eyes darted off his hairy chest when I realized he was looking at me.

“Well,” he sighed, and began to tap the air above his abs with a finger. Suddenly a sort of bluish holographic console spread out across his torso, revealing something of a view of his internal features along with strange symbols and highlighted, flashing areas. In the blue glow, he dangled his finger over the pulsing outline around the ribs on his right side and enlarged the image. More symbols, occasionally resembling text in some foreign language, appeared around the magnified image of his ribs. Flashing highlights indicated what appeared to be dark lines or fractures in two ribs. “Uh-huh,” he said approvingly, “that’s what I thought it felt like. It’s nice to have it confirmed, though. Thank you, doctor,” he said to the blue lights, and then smiled up at me. “It doesn’t talk. That would be kind of strange, wouldn’t it?”

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” I said, still stunned.

“You want to try it?” He asked, indicating the blue display.

“Oh no,” I said, shaking my head, “I’m afraid I’ll turn it off!”

“No need to worry about that. Here, just try it,” and he held my hand and I extended a finger into the blue light and moved the enlarged image of his ribs. There was nothing to feel, it was simply a holographic image of light, but I was shifting the picture with my finger. He let go of my hand, and a few seconds passed before I lost my nerve and withdrew my finger.

“Pretty nutty, right?” He smiled, and then I yawned right in his face. I couldn’t help it, so I tried to cover my mouth and apologize, but I had to wait until I was done yawning in order to speak. While I apologized, he yawned back and finished with a moan of pain. “Ouch, that hurt.”

“Sorry,” I said again, leaning the side of my head against the back of the couch while still facing him, “but I’m exhausted. It’s been a long day.” I could see by the clock on the wall that it was a quarter after two. I’d known this guy Louis for about an hour.

“Heh, you’re telling me,” he said, tapping the blue light over his torso until it vanished. He gently eased his head back to join mine on the couch, and then turned to look at me. Our faces were about a foot apart. His blue eyes were so completely beautiful.

“Your eyes remind me of caramel,” he said, winking. I had just experienced advanced alien technology, and yet this seeming similarity in our thoughts at that moment was what surprised me more.