The Prophet, by BF McCune
Ted Davis reappeared in the office seven months and twenty-five days after he disappeared. I was more than glad to see him again; I was relieved. We’d been mates, as close as you can get to someone you work with. Together we’d been a dynamic duo, challenging old management approaches, scoring big sales. Right after he disappeared, the cops came around, going through the motions on a missing person report, was he on medication, did he have any conflicts with co-workers, were corporate funds out of whack? But there’d been no explanations about his absence.
He’d changed. Before he’d been self-possessed. Hearty, congenial, almost thoughtless about what came out of his mouth. Now he paused a lot when he talked, looked around at objects like telephones, pens, calculators, hesitated before taking an action. Naturally speculation ran wild, theories from a nervous breakdown to lengthy, drug-induced frolics on the beach at Cancun.
Last Friday, after a very bad week, I headed out for a TGIF drink; and something about the way Ted was drooping over his desk, like he was the loneliest man in the world, made me invite him along. We settled on two stools at the very end of the bar. He slung his arm over the back, his head tilted, a vacant look in his eyes. I started talking about the Broncos, the girl who’d just dumped me, the hellhole work had become under the new boss, anything to fill the awkwardness that came between us, the void where our friendship used to be.
Finally Ted grunted in response. “Going through a tough time?”
“Yeah.” I fidgeted under his look.
“You’ll do fine. I had. . .a bit of trouble with my girlfriend when I was gone. But it’s amazing what you can survive if you have to. You get stronger.”
“Yeah. I guess.” I didn’t want to agree or disagree. To tell you the truth, I was ready to high-tail it for home, preferring even an empty apartment to this struggle to make conversation with a man who’d become a stranger. I caught Ted in a pity-look directed toward me. I couldn’t stand for that. So I turned the tables on him.
“Hey, Ted, what was up those months you were truant? Have amnesia? Get kidnapped?”
“Guess you could say that.”
Not the answer I’d expected. I thought he’d make a joke, get embarrassed. But kidnapped? That implied an entrancing story. I hitched my chair closer to Ted. “By bad guys? Tell me.”
He sat stolid as a gargoyle. I thought he hadn’t heard me until the hand holding a beer bottle started shaking. A spasm of guilt passed over me, and I opened my mouth to take back my request, but he held up his free hand. Head bent, he asked me a question.
“You know those guys who walk around downtown talking and no one’s there to listen? Not the ones on cell phones, a Bluetooth, or a headset, and you first think he’s babbling. We’re used to those. You go for subtle cues. If he’s wearing pressed chinos and a button-down, or carrying a Land’s End brief case, he’s an upwardly mobile techie or salesman, not a loon.
“But when you see someone stepping out and talking to air, you wonder. You sidle out of the way and avoid making eye contact. Most of these folks are conversing with personalities that exist only in their heads. Right? Am I right?”
I grunted agreement.
He took a deep breath. “They’re not.” He exhaled.
“They’re not what?”
“Not talking to imaginary people.”
“Then whom are they talking to?”
Ted turned and looked straight at me, not a twitch at the corner of his mouth, not a glint in his eye. “Visitors.”
“Yes. From,” he fumbled for words, “from another planet.”
“Right,” I said and stood up, pushing my stool to the bar. “Well, time to shove off. See you Monday.”
A kind of shudder ran over him, and his body slackened. He leaned back in his chair, arms spread wide, gave a huge grin that made him look like a goofy puppy. “Come on, man. I know this sounds crazy. But what do you have to lose by listening? You’re shit out of options. Your girlfriend’s dumped you. Your job’s probably next on the block for axing during this round of downsizing. You have nothing ahead of you but vicarious thrills from reality television and drinking yourself into a stupor.”
I groaned. “Okay. Anything for a distraction. I thought you were going to tell me about your kidnapping. Then you start in on space aliens. Whatever your story, get it straight.”
“I am,” he insisted. “Kidnapping BY space aliens.”
“Yeah. They came down in a saucer, right? And did all kinds of kinky sex stuff with you.”
“No.” He threw his head back and laughed. “No, no sex. I think, though, that must be the closest feeling humans have for the activity. So if you’re someone short on words or imagination, you might call it sex.”
“And they were green. Or did they glow?”
“If you want the story, you’ll have to stop interrupting to make half-assed remarks. Agreed?”
I nodded. He began in a voice so soft I had to lean closer to block out the conversations around us.
“I was out near Rangely. Camping in one of those wilderness areas where hardly anyone stops, with the immense flat plateaus that go on in steps to the horizon. Earth-colored, but not really, because once you look hard at them, you realize the earth’s got these subtle, ever-changing tones: dun, beige, pewter, olive, khaki, avocado, purple, more than you can describe. Then you hike down into them and you see all the diversity life comes in, and each one of those, whether insect, squirrel, eagle or bear, has its own infinite variety and pulse.
“That’s why I go there to camp. You get fed up with humans? Recharge there. I’d been stressed out. Just lost out on a big promotion, my girl friend was making sounds like she wanted to move on, my dad was having some health problems. I needed to get away.
“So I drove out there, left my car in the parking area and hiked in a couple of miles. Pitched my tent, ate a sandwich. I crawled in my sleeping bag, using just a flashlight. It’s totally dark. Outside there are stars and moon, but inside nothing. Something woke me during the night, I don’t know what, maybe a vibration of the ground. I opened my eyes, but I could see nothing. I reached for my flashlight, but I couldn’t move. Bit by bit I realized I was losing all sensations. I was in a void, I was a void. Like being flash-frozen from the outside in. Couldn’t see, couldn’t hear trees rustling or wind blowing, couldn’t feel the sleeping bag around my body. I panicked. Had the tent fallen and smothered me? Maybe I’d had a stroke. Had a bear attacked me? But there was nothing sharp or biting. Nothing hurt. I realized I could hear my heart beating and my breathing. So I concentrated on those and tried to make some sense of the situation. Then, even though I still wasn’t receiving any sensory input, I knew I was rising in the air. I thought, maybe I’m dead and I’m going to heaven.”
Ted stopped and tugged on his beer like he’d been in a desert for a week. “I don’t know what’s worse, the memories or knowing how fucked up I seem when I talk about them. But it helps for me to have someone to talk to.” He cast a guarded look in my direction.
“Shit, I don’t care,” I said. “This is fascinating. Go on.”
“After a while I stopped moving. All my senses came back on. I was lying on a table, and I was stark naked. Can you imagine how it feels to be stark naked in front of a bunch of people, creatures, you’ve never seen before? You’re totally stripped and not just of clothes. Of anything to hide behind. Talk about vulnerable. Everything switches to survival mode. I learned how a woman being raped feels. Or a prisoner of war undergoing interrogation.
“Not that they were violent or conducted weird experiments on me. They did do tests, like the kind a doctor does at a checkup or a psychologist when you’re depressed. And they showed me things, equipment, tried to teach me. I can’t really explain. It’s like a two-year old telling how electricity works. He doesn’t have the words or concepts. Or describing sight to a blind man. And there I was, completely isolated from my friends and family, not knowing if I’d ever get back. I tell you, I was just about destroyed.” He shook his head as if denying his thoughts.
I wondered how far he’d play this game, if I could push him into admitting he was conning me. Or if he really had gone round the bend. “What do they look like?” I asked.
Ted opened his mouth to speak, paused, considered. “Not all that different from us. Except they kind of glow. No, not glow. Look, have you ever seen a group of models on television? The tall skinny ones with no expressions except for thrusting their hips forward? They are so unlike the run-of-the-mill person, they could be a mutation of humans. It’s like that. Only different.”
“They’re not blue or have four arms or something.”
“No, oh no. They’re quite attractive.” He leaned back against his chair and crossed his arms on his chest. His eyes took on that foggy look again. “But you, most people can’t see them. There’s something about their physiognomy that humans have trouble perceiving. That’s why they can walk among us with impunity. Unless, of course, like me, you’ve trained yourself to pick up their vibes.”
“Of course,” I said. Then what he’d said sunk in, and I jerked up straight. “They’re here, on Earth? Right now? Right here?” I pointed to the empty stool next to him.
“Relax. Not in this bar. But they do visit frequently to observe us en masse. Their former subjects, like me, provide an entrée to our culture. That’s why they’re talking, the people you think are weirdoes, they’re talking to aliens, aliens who walk among us, studying us.”
“And you were chosen because?” I couldn’t believe the words were coming out of my mouth. I sounded like some sci fi flick.
“Coincidence? Right time and place? I’m not the typical human they contact for in-depth research. They usually go for rural hicks or homeless guys, people no one believes about their encounters. My being out in a backwoods misled them. They didn’t keep me as long as they usually do their subjects. Told me my reactions and perceptions weren’t basic or instinctive enough. I’m over-educated, I guess.” He gave a sharp, cynical bark of laughter.
“That education got me observing them like I was an anthropologist. I learned how to tell when they’re around me. Kind of a wavery disturbance in the air when they’re on Earth. Plus
the tests and interactions with them honed my ability to concentrate, to preserve my inner self.
“Once I figured out what had happened to me, I decided to make the most of it, rather than fighting every step of the way or being scared shitless. When you can’t predict what’s going to happen, have no one to help, and your experience and knowledge are worthless, you’re reduced to nothing. You have to go with the flow, value the journey. If you’re struggling to retain your sanity and make sense of your surroundings, dig deep enough inside and you can find that little core that’s you and build on that. Perched millions of miles above your home world, lots of things shrink to the size of atoms. I learned how insignificant most of our worries are. Promotions at work? New car? Going bald? Absolute zero. Even more how microscopic, the differences among human creatures, like race, height, religion. What’s really important are family, friends, life itself.”
Ted drained his beer. I simply sat there, soaking up this fantastic story without twitching a finger, even though he had to be around the bend. Still he was a pal, a guy who’d gone through, if not burning hell, at least through hot heck with me. Like the time I’d failed to proof a letter to clients, and he stayed up all night with me to help reprint and stuff about a million envelopes. Or when my laptop loaded with an important database went missing, and he found it in the employee bathroom under a bunch of paper towels. I couldn’t just fade on him.
I shook my head and came on straight with Ted. “This story is more than incredible, man, it’s mind-blowing. Literally. Are you sure you were, um, rational. Maybe you got hit on the head with a rock or something.”
A slanted smile tugged at the corner of his mouth. “Now you sound like the staff at the psychiatric clinic. After about a month, the aliens dumped me at the same place they picked me up. My tent, my supplies, car, were still there, a little worse for wear. I came wandering out of the wilderness, a freakin’ John the Prophet. When I got back and told Donna, she had me committed for observation, then cleared out of the apartment during the three-day involuntary hold. That’s when I found out official types don’t want to hear about space aliens. I learned to keep my mouth shut. As long as I avoided wild talk and didn’t appear violent, the docs had no reason to keep me.”
“So what happened then? You’ve only been back at work a couple of weeks.”
“My save-the-world stage. As I learned to communicate with the aliens, I saw just how fucked up our world really is. Their culture’s eliminated a lot of our evils. Wars, greed, abuse, they abandoned our destructive behaviors long ago as counter-productive. They have natural catastrophes and illness, even epidemics. But the negative emotions they’ve let go of. So when I was released from the hospital, I decided to spread the word. Walk in the way of the Lord, so to speak. You know I’ve always been a Christian.”
Uh-oh, I thought, here it comes. Now he tells me he’s the returned Messiah or something.
He spotted the look on my face and laughed, holding a palm up. “No, no, I’m not going to convert you. But in some weird way, I became both more and less religious. The names, the ceremonies, the exact beliefs held no distinction to me anymore, but the spiritual force, I guess you’d call it, that created and drives the universe made tremendous sense. I’d seen it in action with the aliens. I was so filled with it, I wanted to share it with everyone. I wanted to spread the word, that if aliens could change their basic make-up, maybe humans can, too. So I hit the streets. Preached on corners, panhandled for God, confronted people as they walked along. Boy, was I determined.” He shook his head.
“But you’re back at work now, with not a peep about this,” I said.
“After several months, I realized that my ranting about an alien culture wouldn’t change human actions. Think about it. Down through history we’ve treasured our differences because they let us feel superior to our fellows. Crusaders versus Muslims, whites counter to blacks, Communists and capitalists, Afghans and infidels, even Republicans and Democrats. Having sprung from the same human seed, living on the same small sphere, possessing identical genetic composition, yet we continue to insist that one group is better, even divine, while its counterpart, ranked as an extreme opposite, isn’t. Am I right or am I right?
“Anyway, I gave up banging on my drum and shaking my tambourine the night some street kids decided to knock the sense back into my head—literally. I settled for normalcy as being preferable to death. When I talked to my old boss, the guy who’d filled my position had just left, and I told them I’d had a nervous break-down. They’re so shit-scared of someone suing over discrimination against the disabled, they gave me the job back.”
“What’s it like to be back at work?” I asked.
“A relief, a respite. No more crusading. Humanity will have to grow up without my help. Still, I can’t take my job or politics or the economy or much of anything seriously. I feel like I’m playing Bingo with the children while the adults, the aliens, engage in a challenging chess game.”
“Wow!” I said, feeling obligated to make a response. “That’s some story. You seem to have recovered fairly well.”
“That’s what an extreme incident does to you. You either fold or you get stronger. I thought I was one tough dude before. Ha! Losing a job, running a car into a tree, these are nothing in the total scheme. I’ve learned to appreciate the process of living, even the hideous parts, the ordeals. What counts is survival and appreciating the process of living. I know you’re going through some tough times, but hang in there.”
We sat in the bar for a while. Nearly everyone else had gone, and the waitress was making motions like she wanted to close. I stood and mumbled something about Ted needing a ride.
He stood, too. “No, thanks, I’m on the bus these days.”
I felt like I didn’t know what to do with my hands, so I shoved them in my pockets. I didn’t ask the question whose answer I dreaded: What are the aliens planning next? Instead I said, “Hey, do you want me to keep my mouth shut about your story?”
He smiled. “It doesn’t matter. Who’d believe you?”
Bonnie McCune credits her tenacity for the successes in her life. She has been writing since age ten, when she submitted a poem to the Saturday Evening Post (it was immediately rejected). Still she was determined to be a writer. This interest facilitated her career in nonprofits doing public and community relations and also in freelance news and features. Her community involvement includes grass-roots organizations, political campaigns, writers’ and arts’ groups, and children’s literacy. For years, she entered recipe contests and was a finalist once to the Pillsbury Cook Off. Her true writing passion is fiction, and her pieces have won several awards. For reasons unknown (an unacknowledged optimism?), she believes that one person can make a difference in this world. McCune lives in Colorado. Read more about her and her work at www.BonnieMcCune.com.
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Tags: aliens, B.F. McCune, secrets, travel