Prose, including snippets (mini-memoirs).
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The Stranger appeared so suddenly that Collins started when he saw him standing nearby, watching the transfer of fishing gear from the canoe to the SUV with great interest. To Collins he might as well have just materialized there instead of quietly approaching out of the deep twilight.
He managed to regain his composure enough to offer a greeting. “Hey,” he said. “How’s it going?”
The Stranger was silent for a second or two before responding. “Going?” he repeated. He stood too still, too motionless for Collins’ comfort. Silhouetted against the last daylight ebbing from the horizon, his features invisible, he was just an ominous shadow across the still waters of the lake. “It is not going well.”
Now it was Collins’ turn to pause. “I’m – I’m sorry,” he stammered. “What’s wrong?”
“It is not your fault,” the Stranger replied. “I’ve lost my way.”
The Stranger’s accent was faint, and Collins couldn’t place it. It had the soft rounded lilt of western Native American, and a trace of the bubbling musicality of some African languages, but it was neither of those. It had an odd, unidentifiable edge that kept Collins off balance. He found himself struggling to connect with this man. “Where are you trying to go?” he finally asked.
Again the Stranger paused for a few beats too many, again without moving. Collins actually felt his hackles rising in alarm. “Friends,” he suddenly said. “I am to meet with my friends.”
“I see,” Collins replied slowly. He was beginning to wonder if the Stranger might not be entirely there. “And where would they be?”
After another unnerving pause, the Stranger answered, “I do not know for sure. Somewhere in those hills,” and for the first time he moved. He raised an arm to point to the foothills on the far shore of the lake, and there was something disturbing about it, something in the way the limb articulated. Was the forearm too long? Did it bend at an odd angle? In the dark, Collins couldn’t be sure, but it seemed to arouse in him all of his inner fears of disfigurement. He felt a quick wash of shame as well, that feeling that arises when one realizes he is averting his eyes from some deformity, and he tried again to stabilize his emotional footing. The Stranger might have mental and physical difficulties, but was not behaving in a threatening manner. He was asking for help, and Collins felt he at least owed him the courtesy of pointing him in the right direction. “Well,” he forced himself to say. “I could probably take you there. It’s too dark to canoe across now, but we can drive around the lake. Road’s a little rough, might take about 20 minutes. There’s a ranger station over there, maybe they can put you in touch with – with your friends.”
The Stranger lowered his arm and stood motionless for several seconds. “That would be good,” he intoned. “I would thank you.”
“Not a problem,” Collins lied. He turned to close the rear hatch of the SUV, reaching inside first to stow the fishing gear for the rough ride ahead. “Could you give me a hand with the canoe?” he asked.
One-thousand one, one-thousand two, one-thousand thr... “A hand?” the Stranger asked.
“Yeah, help me hoist it up onto the rack. I can do it myself, but it’s easier with two.”
“Yes,” the Stranger slowly replied. “I will assist you.”
The tackle was secured to the bed of the SUV, but Collins pretended to play with it while groping about in the dark for the hatch over the rear storage compartment. He found it, opened it, and withdrew from within a .38 caliber pistol. He did not have a license to carry, but he was going to tonight. Just in case. He felt for the safety catch and made sure it was engaged before slipping the pistol into his belt. He straightened and slammed the rear hatch shut.
It was almost a physical effort for Collins to walk in front of the Stranger to the edge of the boat landing to where the canoe lay half in, half out of the water. He waded to the rear of the boat and lifted it up by the gunwale. “You get that end,” he told the Stranger.
The Stranger turned, and in the faint sky light reflected from the lake, Collins saw his face for the first time. He was shocked at how bland and unremarkable it was: clean-shaven, calmly composed with small, almost delicate features. The Stranger examined the way Collins had picked up his end of the canoe, then leaned over and did the same. Both of his arms had that odd, misproportioned look. Collins began to think that the Stranger might be suffering some kind of birth defect, and that perhaps his alarm was overreaction to his own fears and prejudices.
“Okay,” Collins said. “Over to the truck.”
The two of them hauled the canoe away from the water’s edge, and Collins directed the Stranger to the front of the SUV. Together they hoisted it up to the roof and laid it keel-side up on the rack. The Stranger then stood silently to one side while Collins tied it down with the nylon strapping. He gave it a few shakes and tugs to test the snugness of the tie-downs, and felt it was satisfactory. “Okay,” he said. “Let’s go.”
He unlocked the driver’s door and climbed in, then reached over and unlocked the passenger door from inside, but the Stranger didn’t open the door. With some exasperation, Collins did it for him. Only then did the Stranger climb in.
In the illumination from the dome light, Collins got his first good look at the Stranger. Besides the calm, unemotional visage, he could see now that the Stranger was bald, Caucasian, and that his left hand was heavily and sloppily bandaged. Inserting the key into the ignition, Collins asked him, “What did you do to your hand?”
The Stranger turned to look at the dressing, not at Collins when he replied. “Burned it,” he said.
Collins pulled his door shut and flicked the ignition. The SUV came to life, but the dome light was still on. “You going to shut the door?” he asked.
The Stranger looked up from his injured hand to Collins, then around to the still-open door. He pulled it shut, but not hard enough to fully latch. Instead of opening it to try again, he sat staring at it.
Collins’ unease was becoming irritation, which in turn led to guilt, so he tried to be solicitous. “Sometimes it does that,” he said, opening his own door. He got out shaking his head, walked around the vehicle, and slammed the Stranger’s door shut. He climbed back in behind the wheel and shut his own door, leaving them bathed only in the greenish glow from the instrument panel. For some reason, Collins was grateful for the return of the darkness. He briefly fingered the handle of the pistol before switching the headlights on, shifting into first, and releasing the clutch.
“So how did you do it?” he asked.
From the sound of the voice, Collins could tell that the Stranger was looking straight ahead, not at him. “Do what?”
“Burn your hand.”
The pause before the answer was longer than any that had preceded it. “Getting out,” he finally said flatly. “The metal was very hot.”
“You got a camp around here?” Collins asked, puzzled.
“A camp – yes. My friends have a camp.”
“And one of the trailers burned?”
“Trailers... ? No. My -” but he didn’t finish the sentence. Collins was beginning to think that the 15 or 20 minutes to the ranger station were going to be the longest of his life.
When the silence stretched out to the breaking point, Collins spoke again. “So, what’s your name?”
Another long pause. “John.”
“John. I’m Richard.”
But the Stranger said nothing, and the only sound in the cab was the growl of the engine and the creak of the suspension as the SUV lurched along the rutted wood road.
“So, John – what do you do?”
“You know – for work.”
“You would not have heard of it.”
Collins felt a flash of irritation at this. Arrogant prick, he thought. Here I am, bailing him out of whatever jam he’s gotten himself into, and he pulls this academic superiority bullshit. “Okay,” he said trying to be equitable. “Whatever. What subject do you teach?”
“Botany,” the Stranger answered. And that seemed to be the end of it.
Tiring of trying to pry conversation out of this curiously reticent Stranger, Collins reached forward and turned on the stereo. The Bill Evans Trio filled the uneasy silences and voids within the vehicle. “You mind?” he asked, not really caring.
Jesus on a bicycle, Collins thought. “Would it bother you if I turned on some music?”
“No. We have music as well.” This struck Collins as an odd statement, but he was even more startled when the Stranger spoke first several minutes later. “This is interesting.”
“What is?” Collins asked.
“Yeah? I’ve always liked jazz, too…”
“Is that what this is called?”
“Yes. You’ve never heard jazz before?”
“No. I don’t think so.”
“So where are you from?”
The Stranger was silent for a long while before answering. “A long distance.”
I could have guessed that, Collins thought. “What brings you here?”
“The wilderness,” the Stranger replied. “We came to study your biota. To compare it to ecologies… elsewhere.”
For the first time the Stranger’s reply seemed spontaneous and not carefully rehearsed beforehand. “For knowledge,” he said. “For truth. To understand how Life arises. Through the study of difference and similarity, Truth emerges. And to know is… good. Knowledge is… music.”
“Well, you know, John, I’m no scientist, but I do spend a lot of time outdoors, and have picked up a bit on my own about the wildlife here.” Collins suddenly felt foolish saying it. It felt just a tad defensive, as though he were trying to justify himself to the Stranger. He wasn’t sure where to go with it, so concluded simply with “If there’s anything I can tell you…”
“I would have expected so,” the Stranger replied. “Thank you for your offer. Most kind.”
Collins turned briefly to look at the Stranger, who was still staring straight ahead through the windshield into the shifting shadows cast by the headlights into the woods, and felt a curious flash of gratitude for the acknowledgement. Maybe this guy wasn’t so bad after all, he thought. He’s a bit different. A foreigner and all, and a scientist to boot. Scientists are all a little odd, aren’t they?
“It is why I asked for your help.”
Despite himself, Collins felt himself warming enough to the Stranger to push him a little harder for details about himself. “John – just how did you get separated from your friends? Were you out on a field trip, or…” He let the ellipsis dangle.
Something in the Stranger’s demeanor seemed to have changed. Now it was he who seemed ill at ease. “I made a mistake,” he eventually said. “An incorrect heading. I got lost.”
“How long were you out there?”
“About two days.”
“With no food or water?”
“I had no provisions. I lost them all… they burned.”
“Christ, man, I’m sorry. I’ve got nothing for you, but the rangers will fix you up. It’s not too much further. They can even take a look at your hand.”
“No!” The vehemence startled Collins. Then, regaining his composure, the Stranger spoke in his usual fashion. “That will not be necessary.”
“All right, all right – just chill. It was only a suggestion.”
“I understand. I realize you are only trying to help.”
Collins glanced over at the Stranger, who was now looking directly his way. He smiled and nodded, but the Stranger only returned his gaze forward. The SUV rounded a bend and emerged into a large clearing, at the far end of which stood a rustic cabin bathed in the bluish light of a single mercury-vapor lamp. “There it is,” he said with more relief in his voice than he cared to acknowledge. “The ranger station.”
“Stop,” the Stranger commanded. “Stop here.”
Oh crap, Collins thought. His heart started to pound, and his mouth went dry. This is it. He brought the vehicle to an abrupt stop, and slowly reached down for the gun with his left hand. At this range, he hoped, it shouldn’t matter that he was right-handed.
The Stranger sat silently for several seconds before saying “I am very grateful for the assistance you have provided me.”
Collins fought the tendency for his breath to come in shallow little gulps and to remain calm yet vigilant in the moment. “Okay,” he said, waiting for the other shoe to drop.
The Stranger continued. “You don’t realize how important it is that I find my friends. If I don’t… it will be a very long time before I can go home.”
Collins wrapped his fingers around the handle of the gun, and worked it slowly out of his belt. When it slipped free he eased the safety off. “Why is that?” he asked.
“Because I am from very, very far away.”
With the pistol ready to be brought into play, he felt a surge of confidence that channeled his fear into anger. “Goddammit, John, enough of this bullshit. Just where the hell do you come from?”
The pause this time was unlike the others. The Stranger inhaled to speak, but held it, as if in hesitation. “You have no name for it,” he finally said. “Just as we had no name for your home when we arrived.”
It took a second or two for this to register, and when it did Collins felt an odd wave of unreality wash over him, a cold shudder of awareness of the revelation's import. But of the thousands of questions the Stranger’s statement might have raised, he could only manage “Tell me more about how you got separated.”
The Stranger paused. “We were to rendezvous at the study site,” he finally said, more slowly and deliberately than usual. “But I made a mistake. I had not correctly set my course. Either that, or my maps of your world’s electromagnetic field were incorrect. I arrived too soon, and in the wrong place. I landed hard. Then the fire… I burned myself getting out. I was afraid. I did not want to die.”
Collins had had his thumb on the hammer in case he needed to cock the weapon, but at this last admission he hesitated. “No one wants to die, John,” he said.
“And yet we all must.” The Stranger looked at him. “And I owe you a debt of gratitude for helping me forestall the inevitable for a while longer.” He held his gaze for several seconds. “I thank you, Richard.” He gestured towards the cabin. “Will these men help me find my colleagues?”
He met the Stranger’s gaze, and noticed now that the facial features weren’t fixed, but fluid, rippling slightly like an underfilled waterbed, held into human form only with a supreme conscious effort. And for the first time he felt completely unafraid. He re-locked the safety and dropped the weapon into the door panel’s storage pocket.
“No,” Collins said. He started the engine again and put the SUV into gear. “No, John. I’ll take you to them myself.”
I'm not an outlier. I just haven't found my distribution yet.
I'm not an outlier. I just haven't found my distribution yet.
Well done. Strange how the unknown non-human (once confirmed as such) was much less threatening than the unknown human. One wonders how this story ends... How would either of them know where to go? What was Collins' true nature?...
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