Charlie didn’t have the guts to rob the drugstore in Visalia. The woman behind the counter reminded him of his mother—what a chump. His truck needed gas, oil, a new carburetor. No sweat. Now he could buy a brand-new Cadillac.
Charlie nodded at the man in the Air Force uniform. The goon thought himself important in his creased pants, pressed shirt, and two rows of medals on his chest. Charlie believed Roswell was a hoax, until now. Sure, he agreed. What crashed must have been a weather balloon.
“Take anything?” the goon asked.
“How long you been here?”
Charlie shrugged. “A couple minutes,” he said, glancing at his truck.
“Yeah. Can I go?”
“In a few minutes. Stay here.” The goon walked off.
Charlie had been driving to the Paradise Motel when he saw an oblong craft zigzag across the sky. It cartwheeled over the flatlands of Bakersfield, then bam, a boom so loud the wheels on his truck wobbled. He parked. Ran to the crash. Fear smacked him to his knees. A huge gash in the ship exposed four bodies. They had webbed hands and their skin was scaly, like a snake. Two were embedded in the control panel, the other two twisted in the wreckage. They oozed an orange slime and reeked of rotten hamburger. Charlie pitched forward. Vomit gushed from his mouth. He wiped his face. Stood. Shaking. Walked backwards—staring. Halfway to his truck, it registered, he’d hit the jackpot!
He jammed his pockets with debris strewn across the field—trophies from the crash—elastic metals, a tube with symbols, a dial with knobs around it. The largest piece was a weightless inlaid screen. He could live on the story for months, maybe years—no more jail time. Gladys would take him back. Charlie was gonna be rich.
He had gone to his truck, wrapped his loot in rags, and crammed them under the seat next to his gun and started over again until he heard sirens, saw flashing lights in the distance, heard helicopters overhead. Too far from his truck to split, he dropped the goods and ran.
The military goons suited up in white jumpsuits, masks, and gloves. Oh, shit, contamination. He hadn’t thought of that. He looked at his hands, his bare arms, ran his fingers over his stubble—nah, nothing to worry about.
The cops arrived and then the press with their cameras. The military ordered everyone off the land. Charlie liked seeing the cops get the shaft for a change.
Leaning against the fence post, he pulled a match and a cigarette butt out of the sleeve of his rolled-up T-shirt. He gazed at the crash site. Man, where the hell did they come from? It was no flying saucer, and no little men with giant heads. These things were like reptiles. Did they have families? Would anyone miss them? Charlie blew smoke into the dry summer air. Damn. He was starting to feel sorry for them.
The whole crazy scene made him look to the skies. It made him think. He tried to grasp something, but it was beyond his understanding—beyond where to get his next lay or his next buck. The wonder of it all made him curious and scared all tangled into something bigger than himself.
The same goon walked toward him. “Come over here, Charlie.”
The guy put his arm around him. Charlie tried to shrug him off, but the goon stuck his claw into his shoulder.
They walked parallel to the site, the man’s hand clamped around him.
“Turned out to be a gag. Kid’s prank,” the goon said. “We don’t want rumors. You know. Scare people—have everyone panic.” He released Charlie. “You understand?”
“Sure I do.”
The guy handed him three twenties.
Charlie hadn’t seen that much dough since he knocked off a hardware store in Fresno a year ago. He grabbed the hush money and stuffed it in his pocket.
“You can go.”
Charlie headed toward his truck. He saw a convoy of jeeps and vans on the highway coming toward them. A lot of fuss for a joke. The big shots thought they could bribe him.
He opened the door and climbed into the Chevy. Charlie stuck his hand under the seat and felt for the stash. It was there. So was the gun. He switched on the ignition. It wouldn’t turn over. He tried it again—and again.
“Something wrong?” the goon asked.
“My truck’s dead. You got cables?”
“No. Where’s the nearest filling station?”
“A few miles west of here,” Charlie said, feeling the jitters.
“Any diners around?”
“My driver will take us.”
Damn truck was always breaking down. With the sixty bucks he could have it towed and fixed, then sell the heap of junk.
The jeep crawled up beside him.
“Get in. I don’t have all day,” the goon said from the back seat of the car.
Charlie locked his truck and climbed into the jeep.
“Got a cigarette?” he asked the driver.
Charlie cupped his trembling fingers around the flame. He stared at the crash site. What will they do with them? Images of those poor bastards would live with him till he died. He shot one last glance at his truck with the goldmine inside.
“Don’t worry about your truck,” the goon said. “It’s not going anywhere.”
“Who said I was worried.” He stubbed his cigarette and tossed it out the window.
The stretch of land was one long road out in nowheresville. Purple sage, sycamore trees, tumbleweeds, the mountains in the distance—if he could live anywhere he’d still choose the San Joaquin Valley. He heard rustling behind him. Then the barrel of a gun pressed into—what did Gladys call it, his sweet spot. They were gonna kill him all along.
Charlie took a deep breath and looked at the wide-open skies and wondered if anyone would miss him.