Mr. Robbins pulled a small piece of jagged, silver metal out of his casserole. He held it up close to his thick glasses, got a surprised look on his face, and raised it into the air. "Waitress, there's a piece of the space shuttle in my lunch."
The guy at the next table grabbed it and looked it over. "That's not a piece of the shuttle," said Ernie. "I'll bet the new cook lined the casserole dish with aluminum foil." He handed it back to Mr. Robbins. "Tell Millie, and I'll bet you get you get a free lunch." He winked.
The old man held the foil scrap closer to his varnished corneas for a better look. After he'd scrutinized it, he scratched the white patch of thinning hair on top of his head. "You know it wasn't the space shuttle like they said it was."
"What are you talking about?"
He looked agitated that the other diner patron wasn't on the same page as him, and it resounded in the tone of his voice. "I'm talking about the thing that crashed in the woods not too far from here."
"Of course it wasn't," Ernie replied. "It was a satellite, or pieces of it anyway."
He shook his head. "It was a flying saucer."
"What makes you think that?" he asked.
"Why else would NASA be out here after that thing came down?"
"Because it was their satellite."
"The men in black were with them."
"They had tracking dogs," said Mr. Robbins. He raised his chin at Ernie, looked down at him, and doled out his next statement in disjointed words. "Sniffing-out-little,-gray-skinned-aliens." He sniffed.
"It was a satellite, you old fool!"
The old man shook his head. "It was a flying saucer, and the aliens aboard that thing are still running around here." The wrinkled folds of his lids narrowed down until his milky eyes were thin slits. "They're probably plotting to take over earth."
Good!" said Ernie. "Maybe they'll do a better job running the planet than the politicians." He stood.
"Where you going?"
"Home." He started to walk off.
Mr. Robbins latched on to Ernie's arm. "Wait a minute."
"What now, Barry?"
"Shouldn't we call the army or something like that?"
Ernie scowled and shook his head. "Who's been filling your head with all this nonsense?"
"Corky Lindsey and it ain't nonsense."
Ernie looked across the diner at the man sitting at one of the tables drinking coffee and talking to another elderly man, voices low and articulating concern.
Corky popped an antacid into his mouth. He ran his calloused hands through his gray hair, leaned across the table, and looked Ben square in the eyes. "Herbie disappeared right after he wrote that blog about how the government is being taken over by extraterrestrials and posted it on the Internet." He dragged the glass container of sugar over the nicks and scars on the diner's table to the cup of black coffee resting next to his elbow. Mel, the owner of the restaurant, had refused to replace the tabletops laden with decades of names and dates inflicted by sharp-edged knives. Mel called it nostalgia and said they added character. Corky just figured that he was being cheap.
Ben's sarcastic look highlighted the wrinkles around his eyes. "Somebody should have their butt kicked for showing that old idiot how to get on the Internet in the first place." He pulled the castor chair that once resided in Mel's office closer to the table.
"I've been askin' around and ain't nobody seen him since Friday a week ago." Corky lifted the container and turned it upside down. A steady stream of sugar poured like a crystal waterfall into his cup. He set the sugar down, grabbed his spoon, and began to stir.
Ben lifted a forkful of scrambled eggs to his mouth and stuffed them in. He chewed them into slurry and said, "That don't mean nothin'." He chased the eggs with a bite of toast and a sip of black coffee.
Corky lifted the cup to his lips, narrowed his eyes, and defiantly stared over its rim at Ben. "Ainsworth told me that he watched a black car pull up in Herbie's driveway," he took a sip, and swallowed, "and then he saw the Men in Black knock on his door and haul him away." He slowly lowered the cup.
A puff of air escaped Ben's lips and he smirked. "That don't mean anything. They could have been anybody. Anyways, Ainsworth is senile. Everybody knows that."
Ernie walked up to the table with a scowl on his lips and fire in his eyes. He looked down at Corky. "You need to stop spreading stories about flying saucers and little gray men before you get this town in an uproar." The storm brewing on his face intensified. "That's all I've got to say." He walked away. The glass door rattled when he pushed it open.
As they watched him stomp off into the parking lot, Ben said, "Maybe he's right. You should keep this on the down low." He raised his cup in the air and motioned to waitress for a refill.
The girth of the waitress's hips filled the void of the narrow aisle as she lethargically moved toward them with a full pot of coffee in her hand, stopping at each table to replenish half-empty cups. Two years ago, Millie Downs had been a perky, petite thing gliding up and down the aisle with her long, brown hair pulled neatly back into a ponytail, ready to offer a friendly smile to anyone that stepped through the door of the diner. That was, until she took up with Toby Barnes, the village idiot. He had nothing better to do than run up and down the road in his rusted-out Chevy pickup, spending Millie's tip money on beer, weed, and his secret teenage lover that everyone in town knew about, including Millie. He had a hot temper and a short fuse. The fresh welt beneath her left eye, beginning to ripen into a dark bruise, was a testimony to that fact.
Ben watched her approach, turned back to Corky and whispered, "Now shut up, you old idiot. Don't talk that nonsense where somebody else can hear it."
Millie gazed out from behind a tangle of oily bangs with hollow eyes. "More coffee?" She held out the now half-empty pot.
Corky nodded his head and held out his cup. As she poured, he asked, "Hey, Millie, have you seen Herbie?"
"Moron." Ben's lips straightened out into a hard-pressed line and his eyes narrowed.
She finished filling the cup and turned her head to the empty table across the room where Herbie regularly sat. She turned back to Corky. "No, not since last week, when he came in for his usual breakfast of pancakes and eggs."
"See, I told you." He pointed to the empty table. "Herbie ain't missed a meal here in over ten years. Not even when his Noreen passed away. This is like his second home."
Ben poked his empty fork in Corky's face and repeatedly jabbed the air. "I told you to shut up."
A spark of curiosity flickered in Millie's eyes. "What's going on?"
"Nothin'," Ben quickly blurted out.
"Seems Herbie has got himself into some kind of trouble with the government—or worse," Corky replied. "I think it's aliens."
Millie's face that had been devoid of any expression for nearly two years suddenly blossomed with surprise. "Aliens?"
Fran Goodman stopped in mid-chew and adjusted her hearing aid. She looked up and said loudly through a mouthful of oatmeal, "Aliens? What kind of aliens are you talking about, Corky Lindsey?"
The chatter in the diner ceased and all eyes fell upon Corky.
"See, I told you to shut up," said Ben. He looked around the room into the curious stares. "This babbling old fool don't know what he's talkin' about."
"I know damn well what I'm talking about," Corky replied. He stood up.
Ben tugged at Corky's suspenders. "Sit down."
"Herbie Fletcher went missing after writing a blog about aliens taking over the government. You can ask Ainsworth if you don't believe me. The Men in Black came and took him away."
"Now you done it." Ben released Corky's suspenders with a snap.
Jason Dillenger looked nervously around the room from beneath his ball cap. Then the fair skin of his cheeks blushed red. "I saw something."
Millie set the coffee pot down on the table next to Corky's cup. "What'd you see, Jason?"
He lowered his head and the bill of his cap eclipsed his fresh, young features.
"Come on, tell us," one of the male patrons coaxed. "What did you see?"
"Lights." He raised his head. "Up there, in the sky. Saturday morning, before daylight, I was out in the field and I saw lights. My tractor died out and wouldn't start until they left." He lowered his head back down.
Ben shrugged. "That don't mean nothin'. The lights could have been a plane."
"And I found one of my prize heifers out in the pasture—dead."
"Cows die sometimes." Ben shrugged again.
Jason shook his head. "She was ripped open and her innards were missing."
"Wild animals," Ben retorted. "There's coyotes all around these parts."
"What about the lights in the sky?" Corky asked. "What'd they look like?"
"Brightest things that I have ever seen," Jason replied. "They floated over my head about five-hundred feet in the air. Three smaller ones moved in a circle around a bigger light. And, they didn't move like an airplane or a jet. They zipped off at an upward angle."
Corky looked down at Ben. "How do you explain that?"
"I'm just sayin'; we need to look for a logical and rational explanation for all of this, 'cause I'm sure there is one."
The sound of a toilet flushing penetrated the thin-paneled walls. Hinges squeaked and a tall man wearing overalls emerged from behind the restroom door wiping his hands on a brown paper towel. "I heard everything," he said. He wadded the paper into a tight ball and tossed it onto a vacant table. "Corky's right, something's going on."
Ben groaned. "Not you too, Merle."
Barry Robbins held up the fragment of aluminum foil. "I found a piece of the flying saucer in my casserole."
The tall man held up his hand, "Just wait a minute, and hear me out." He dropped his hand. "I saw Evan Billingsley this morning and he told me that Saturday afternoon, his wife went out to the field and found a large, round patch of corn had been mashed flat to the ground like something big and heavy had been sitting there. In addition, when she got back to the house, she became ill. He said that Eva hasn't felt well enough to get out of bed since Saturday."
A well-dressed man in his late thirties fidgeted with the morning newspaper, folded it, and placed it down on the table. "That would coincide with the timing of Jason's lights."
Everyone but Ben silently nodded their heads in agreement.
"They could still be here," Corky replied. "Just because the mother ship is gone, don't mean some of them ain't still here walkin' around."
Ben's expression soured. "Don't be stupid. Even I know they're supposed to be little, skinny, gray critters with big eyes." He looked around the room. "I don't see anyone here that fits that description."
The front door opened.
Fran shrank back in her chair and gasped. "Oh my God!"
A small, thin man with a shaved head wearing a pair of oversized, dark sunglasses entered the diner.
The newcomer frowned. "That's not quite the reaction that I was expecting."
Fran slapped a hand over her heart and let a nervous laugh. "Mayor Grundy." She took in a few sips of air and let out a sigh of relief. "Sorry, I didn't recognize you."
Mayor Grundy patted his belly. "My doctor told me I had to shed forty pounds or suffer the consequences." He looked around the room. "I've been on medical leave while I did eight weeks at the fat farm. Nothing but raw food and synergistic blends of organic juices." He turned to Millie. "Get me a heart-smart breakfast, and a cup of black coffee. God, I've really missed my coffee." He continued to surf through the stares and gawks. "What's wrong with you people? Didn't any of you miss me?"
The patrons remained silent.
Corky pointed to the top of the mayor's head. "You're bald."
He reached up, rubbed his scalp, and smiled. "Yep, I shaved off what was left of my thinning hair." His hand dropped away. "I figured I was due for some changes." He plotted a course for an empty table and along his way he proudly announced, "The last time I was in here there wasn't this much room in the aisle, but I tell you, I'm so hungry, I could eat a cow."
Jason Dillinger's eyes grew wide.
The rest of the eyes in the room trailed the mayor as he gave Ben a nod and faint smile as he walked passed him. He sat down. "I feel like a different person." He settled back in his chair. "Things seem a little different here since I got back." He nervously tapped the top of the table with his fingertips and fed the tension hanging in the air. "You all seem to be a little uptight." He stopped tapping. "What's going on around here?"
"Maybe you could tell us," Corky replied.
The mayor looked confused. He shook it off and smiled. "Well, as a matter of fact, I can. While I was away, I had time to think about making some changes around here."
Merle stiffened up. "What kind of changes?"
The mayor's smile broadened. "You'll see. I've got a big surprise in store for everyone in this town." He looked across the room to the clock hanging on the wall. "I should be at my office right now getting things started." He motioned to Millie. "Make my breakfast to go, would you?"
"Sure, Mayor." She ducked through the kitchen door.
He stood up. "I'll be calling for a town-Grundy meeting real soon and I'll let you all in on what's about to happen here."
Millie slipped back through the kitchen door holding a Styrofoam plate in one hand and a to-go cup in the other. She walked them to the other end of the counter and plopped them down. She rang up the total on the cash register. "That'll be five dollars and eighty-six cents."
Mayor Grundy handed her a ten. "Keep the change." He scooped the containers from the counter and left the diner.
Corky waited for the door to close. "Did you hear what he just said? That's proof enough for me."
"It makes sense," Merle replied. "They would infiltrate the government right down to the tip of the root."
Norman Catcher sat at a table digging the grime from beneath his fingernails with the sharp end of a toothpick. He looked up. "I was starting to think that all of you were crazy." He turned his head and stared out through the plate-glass window as Mayor Grundy got in his car. He looked at Corky. "But he sure does look like one of them little—"
"Fudder muckers," Corky interjected. "And, if they're smart enough to build a ship that will fly through space then they can probably disguise they way they look." Corky scanned the room. "Hell, they could be any one of you."
"What about you?" Merle replied. He poked his finger out at Corky. "For all I know, you could be one."
"You both should keep your wits," Ben stood up and stepped in between the two men, "and realize that there is no such thing as little gray men from outer space. Even if there was, they probably don't mean any harm."
Jason stared at Ben from under the bill of his grimy cap. "Why are you defending the aliens?"
Ben held up his hands in the air. "Just wait a minute here. I'm not defendin' anybody or anything. I'm just sayin' that we should look into this before we jump to any conclusions."
Merle turned his accusing finger at Ben. "Maybe you're one."
Ben lowered his hands. "Come on, Merle, you've known me all of your life."
"I know Ben Bates." Merle stepped back. "But maybe you ain't him."
A rusty pickup roared into the parking lot, skidded to a stop, and stirred a cloud of loose dust that swirled away on the morning breeze.
Millie stared out through the glass. She slowly reached up and gently touched the welt beneath her eye.
Corky witnessed her action. "Don't worry, you're safe in here."
The glass door rattled and opened. Toby Barnes's tall, thin frame looked like it had been swallowed by an extra large T-shirt and pair of baggy jeans; his waistband drooped off a pair of once-white boxer shorts. He rubbed at the spackles of hair on his chin. "What are ya'll looking at?"
Corky replied, "What do you want?"
Toby waded through the gauntlet of eyes casting silent judgment. He left a faint smell of beer and stale cigarette smoke hanging in the in his wake. "I'm here to have some coffee and to see my girl."
Millie looked down at the floor.
Toby sat down at the bar, pulled a cigarette from behind his ear, and stuck it in between his lips. He spun around on the stool and smirked. "Any of you gentlemen have a light?"
Corky fished out a book of matches from the pocket of his jeans and tossed them.
Toby snatched them out of the air and turned them over. He looked up at Corky with a wide, deviant grin. "The Fox's Den, huh?" He winked, plucked a match out of the book, and struck it. He lit his cigarette, blew out a puff of smoke, and then shook the fire off the stick. He thumped it at the NO SMOKING sign posted on the door. He held the book of matches up.
Corky said, "You keep 'em."
Toby tucked them in the pocket of his jeans and looked around the room. "What the hell's wrong with you old limp wieners? You look like you all seen a spook or somethin'." He looked over at Millie. "Now, how 'bout that coffee, baby?"
Merle sat down and tossed his hat on the table. "Why don't you just get your coffee to go?"
Toby thumped an ash to the floor. "Last time I looked, this was a public place. I think I'll stay awhile." He spun back around on his stool and faced the bar.
Corky reached out and tugged on Millie's wrist. "You don't have to serve him."
She gently pulled free. "It's okay." Millie squeezed through the narrow aisle and slipped behind the bar. She reached down, produced a white cup, and set it on the counter. She began to pour.
Toby laid his smoke down on the edge of the bar and waited until she finished pouring. He grabbed the top part of her arm. "Hey, babe, got a little cash on you?"
She shook her head. "I don't get paid until Friday." She tried to pull free of his grip.
He gritted his teeth and clamped down harder on her arm. "I need some money. I know you get tips. These old farts in here seem to like you." He squeezed even harder. "Now, hand it over, you fat sow."
She turned her body and pulled free from his grip that left red imprints of his fingers on the soft flesh of her arm. Millie reached down into the pocket of her white apron and dredged up a handful of bills. She plopped them down on the counter. "That's all I have."
He picked up the cash and slowly counted it out. He smiled, grabbed his smoke, and deposited it back in his mouth. "I'll see you later." He spun around and stood up to walk away. He met looks of disapproval and stopped. "What? You think your little high school homecoming queen here is a little angel?"
The looks persisted.
"I got news for you; I could tell you a thing or two about Little Miss Innocent here."
Corky said, "Just take the money and get out of here, Toby."
He took the cigarette from his mouth and thumped it down on the floor. "Alright, I'll let you old folks get back to your swappin' stories or whatever the hell it is you do here." He spun around and shoved the door open and left.
A moment later, the truck door slammed and the engine cranked. Toby left black marks on the street as the rear tires gnawed at the pavement.
Corky and Ben sat back down in their seats.
Merle grabbed his cap from the table and pulled it over his thinning gray hair. "Well, I'm going to forget about what happened here this morning and get back to the fields." He stood up. "And I suggest that you all drop this nonsense and do the same." He turned to leave.
The radio that had been playing non-stop Golden Oldies suddenly popped and static drowned out the song.
Millie turned around and twisted the knob in search of another station. Her effort produced more static. "I'll turn it off," she said.
Wait." Merle pulled his cap off his head.
"What is it?" Corky asked.
Everyone in the restaurant grew silent and turned an ear toward the radio.
After a moment, Jason asked, "What are we listening for?"
Merle slowly sat back down. "Don't you hear it?"
Jason shook his head.
"Voices," Merle said. "And they ain't human." He motioned to the radio with his hand. "Millie, turn it up, would you?"
She gave it a sharp twist and static filled the room. It carried in the far background a faint voice that sounded like someone speaking in an unknown tongue through the spinning blades of a fan.
Fran perked up over her bowl of oatmeal. "I hear it. There's more than one voice." She made an adjustment on her hearing aid. "They sound like they're talking back and forth to each other."
Corky leaned toward her. "What are they sayin'?"
She tweaked the dial and her hearing aid squawked from the feedback. She flinched and turned it down. Then she shook her head. "Don't know. I never heard that language before. It doesn't sound like anything from this planet."
Ben jumped up from his seat. "Hold on, people." He pointed to the radio. "It's static, nothin' more. Your minds are playin' tricks on you."
A loud omnipresent hum filled the air and the lights in the restaurant dimmed. Within seconds, the humming stopped and the lights grew bright again. The radio popped and a song rattled the speakers.
"Oh my God!" Corky sank in his seat.
"What's wrong with you, idiot?" Ben asked.
Corky nervously held up his hand and crooked his finger at the radio. "That song. Don't you get it?"
Everyone turned their heads to the radio and listened to Neil Diamond belting out one of his signature songs.
Corky let his hand fall limply into his lap and his complexion went ash. "It's code."
All eyes turned back to Corky.
"It's just what Herbie Fletcher was trying to warn us about before the Men in Black hauled him away." His brown eyes darted nervously back and forth. "That song is about aliens coming to America. The DJ down at TBRX was friends with Herbie and now he's trying to warn everybody."
"Now I know you're out of your fool mind. You need to stop this talk before you get everybody all fired up and start a riot," Ben warned. "Millie, turn that off."
Jason reached for the can of snuff in the pocket of his jeans. "Then how do you explain what just happened with the radio, the lights and that loud humming sound?"
"I can't. But I do know that it's not aliens."
Jason pointed his finger at Ben. "I think he's one of them."
Dave Summers pushed aside his plate of cold eggs and bacon. "Jason's right about you, Ben. You're either one of them or working with them. You were gone for about a month this last year. Where were you?"
"Vacation. I was in the tropics."
"Got any proof of that?" Corky asked. He moved in on Ben.
Merle waved his hands in the air. "Hold on."
"He might be one of them or might be one of us, but we shouldn't hurt the man if we're not sure."
"Then what do you suggest we do?" Jason asked.
Merle thought a moment and then he said. "I got a roll of duct-tape in my truck. We bind him up and put him someplace where one of us can keep an eye on him."
Jason placed a pinch of tobacco in between his bottom lip and gums. "Then what?"
"We find out what them little gray fudder muckers want," Corky replied.
Merle turned to Jason. "Go get the tape out of my truck. It’s in the glove box."
Jason nodded his head and jumped up from the table.
Ben's eyes filled with panic as he watched Jason walk to the door. "Do you really think that I'm goin' to stand here and let you tape me up?"
"Hey, Jason?" Merle called out.
Jason stopped at the entrance and turned around.
"Fetch my pistol from under the seat. Tuck it underneath your shirt so nobody out there sees you walk back across the parking lot with it."
Jason nodded and pushed past the door and stepped outside.
The panic in Ben's eyes was growing. "I don't know anything about aliens or spaceships. I swear."
"Maybe you don't, but then again, maybe you do." Merle grabbed Ben by the arm and pulled him down. "Now, just sit here and keep your trap shut." He turned to Millie. "Where's Mel today?"
"Home. He said he wasn't feeling well and took the day off. Only me and the cook are here. Why?"
"When Jason gets back inside, hang the closed sign and lock the door."
"Wait a minute." A thought rattled around inside Corky's head. One corner of his mouth turned up and he looked at Merle with a lopsided grin. "Eva and Mel are both sick. They could be turning into aliens or they might already be aliens." He was proud of himself for making the discovery, but the grisly realization ignited fear in the pit of his stomach. His grin fell flat.
Merle gasped, "I never thought about that. Good thinking."
The lopsided grin returned to Corky's lips and he nodded his head.
Jason pushed the door open and stepped back inside slightly hunched over and clutching the lump beneath his shirt like he was nursing a bellyache.
"What about the Mayor?" Corky asked.
"We'll take care of him soon enough," Merle replied. He motioned for Jason. "Did you get the stuff?"
"Yeah." He patted the lump beneath his shirt. "Got them both right here."
"Bring them over." He looked down at Ben. "First things first. Millie, lock the door and hang the closed sign."
"I could have said somethin' when Mayor Grundy came in," Ben protested. "But I didn't."
Corky leaned down and gritted his teeth. "You're not foolin' anybody. I saw how you and the Mayor looked at each other. You were talkin' telepathically with each other." He tapped the end of his finger on the side of his head. "I'm smarter than what you think I am."
Jason stopped at Merle's feet and handed him the roll of tape.
He took it. "Put your hands behind your back, Ben."
"I'm tellin' you that you're all makin' a big mistake and you're going to regret it later."
"Shut up, alien!" Corky slapped Ben upside the head. "I'm not afraid of you, you little gray fudder mucker."
"I wish you would quit calling them that. It's annoying." Merle grabbed one of Ben's wrists and pulled it behind the chair. "Now, give me your other hand."
Ben shook his head.
Merle dropped the tape to the floor, grabbed Ben's free hand, and barked out, "Come on."
Ben struggled against Merle's tight grip and began to get the upper hand in the battle.
A click interrupted the tussle. Jason stood holding the loaded pistol next to Ben's head with the hammer pulled back. "Just do it, Ben. It's for your own good."
Ben stopped struggling and placed his hand behind his back next to the other one.
Merle picked up the roll off the floor, bound Ben's wrists together, and then taped his feet to the chair. "Put him in the cooler for now."
"With pleasure." Corky grabbed the back of the chair and rolled him down the aisle toward the back of the restaurant where Mel had recently installed a new double-door, cold-storage unit. Corky opened one of the doors, he gave the chair a shove and it rolled to the back and banked against a sack of red potatoes. He tugged on the heavy door to close it.
"I've beaten you in the checker tournament down at the County Courthouse five years in a row," Ben blurted out.
Corky stopped and stared at Ben.
"No alien would know that," Ben continued.
"It's common knowledge." Corky started closing the door again.
"But I know that you let me win," Ben called out. "And I know why."
Corky stopped. He opened the door and stepped inside.
Ben slowly raised his head up and locked eyes with Corky. "Ever since my boy died in that car crash, you've been feelin' sorry for me. You've been lettin' me win so that I can have something to feel good about. That's never been said, not even between you and me."
Corky slowly nodded his head.
"Now, come over here and cut me loose."
Corky reached down into his pocket and pulled out a knife. He opened the blade and back-stepped out of the cooler. He turned around and peeked around the corner and saw Merle staring out the window and up into the clouds. Corky returned to the cooler.
Jason joined Merle at the window. "What do you suppose they want?"
Merle shrugged his shoulders. "Don't know. Maybe our natural resources." He studied the skies some more. He turned and looked at Jason. "Maybe we're a food source for them. You know, maybe we're just like a bunch of cattle they're preparing for the slaughter."
Jason flinched and made a face like he had just bitten into a piece of rancid meat. "You don't think that they're here to eat us, do you?"
"Who's to say?"
A hint of uncertainty surfaced on Jason's face. "I've been thinking about all this." A tentative grin parted his lips. "Maybe they ain't gonna eat us, but they need our bodies. Maybe they will take over every human on the planet until we've all been turned into those things. I'm almost positive you and I ain't one, and maybe not Corky." He looked back over his shoulder at the others wandering around the restaurant. He turned back to Merle. "But I ain't so sure about the rest of them."
Merle patted his revolver. "If we notice anybody acting suspicious, we'll put them in the cooler with Ben." He turned back to the window to watch the skies again. His jaw dropped and he tapped a finger against the glass. "Up there! I see something!"
Everyone rushed across the room, pressed their faces against the window, and looked up.
Dave Summers pressed his face flat against the glass and he rolled his eyes upward toward the skies. "I don't see anything." His words steamed the glass around his lips.
"It went behind the clouds," Merle replied.
"It was probably a jet." Dave pulled away from the glass.
Suddenly, all the electrical appliances went dead. Silence engulfed the room. The fluorescent tubes winked out.
Merle pointed up at the ceiling and gravely proclaimed, "I'll tell you right now, that wasn't a jet I saw."
"What did it look like?" Dave asked.
He formed a circle with his hands. "Round. Like a flying saucer."
Dave crooked his neck to stare into the heavens again. "The cloud ceiling looks pretty high." He turned to Merle. "Any chance that you could've been mistaken?"
Merle frowned. "You asked me and I told you what I saw."
The appliances kicked back on and the overhead fluorescents burst into light.
Merle turned to Millie. "Turn that radio back on."
She reached around and gave the knob a twist. Static poured from the speaker embedded with it the same warbling noise in the background as before.
Fran slapped her hands over her ears and squeezed her eyes shut. "Please turn it off. It sounds cold, like snow and ice."
"Sorry, Fran." Millie turned off the radio.
Norman Catcher grabbed his cap and stood up. "I don't know about all of you, but I'm going home."
Fran grabbed her purse from the floor. "Me too." She dropped a dollar bill on the table.
One by one, everyone in the restaurant prepared to leave.
Merle waved his hands in the air. "Hold on a minute and think about this. It's safe here. We've got enough food and water to last us at least a month. And I've got a shotgun in my truck with three boxes of shells left over from last hunting season. You'd all be a bunch of fools to set foot out there."
Norman turned to Millie. "Unlock the door."
Merle turned the gun on him. "Sit down. You ain't going anywhere."
Norman pulled his cap over his short-cropped hair. "My family is at home. And I'm going to protect them if the need arises."
"And I'm going to need all the manpower I can muster right here."
"Then you're just going to have to shoot me." Norman took a step toward the door.
Merle put his thumb on top of the hammer and cocked it back. "So be it." He curled his finger around the trigger.
Merle relaxed his trigger finger and turned around.
Corky stepped around the corner with Ben following close behind.
Merle spun around and aimed the pistol at Ben's head. "What's he doing loose?"
Corky stopped and centered himself in front of Ben. "Put the gun down. He ain't an alien."
The tip of Merle's finger whitened as he applied a little pressure on the trigger. "What makes you think he's not?"
"Listen to me." Corky took a step.
"Don't make another move or I'll splatter what little gray matter is in your head all over these walls."
Corky held his hands in the air. "Put your gun away before you make a big mistake and hurt somebody."
Merle stretched the gun out further. "You were back there a long time in the cooler with Ben." He stiffened his arms. "Maybe he got to you and you're now one of them."
Everyone turned around. Fran was standing at the front door pointing out into the parking lot.
A black car with dark-tinted glass pulled into the parking lot and idled to a stop in one of the empty slots. The driver's door opened and a man dressed in a black suit and dark sunglasses stepped out. He stood there a moment returning the stares of the diner patrons before he glided to the rear door of the car and opened it. A black alligator shoe, attached to an argyle sock, that connected to the cuff of checkered pants touched down on the concrete. The action duplicated itself as another foot joined the first. A moment later, a set of skinny fingers wrapped around the outer metal of the door. The car shifted as the passenger stood fully erect and a face crested above the top of the door.
"Well I'll be." Merle lowered his pistol.
A frail looking man slowly meandered across the parking lot as the driver returned to his seat, closed the door, and drove away.
The man reached the entrance and rattled the locked door.
"I'll get it." Millie dug down into her apron and produced a set of keys before she walked over to the door, jabbed the key into the lock, and gave it a sharp twist.
The man tugged the door open and stepped inside. He looked around the room and scratched the top of his bald head. "What the hell is going on here?"
Corky pushed his way up from the back of the crowd. "Herbie?"
The man nodded his head.
"Where've you been?"
Herbie smiled. "Vacation. My new son-in-law has a successful new business in the Florida Keys. He and my daughter flew me out there for a week."
Corky turned his head and looked out the window. "What about the car and the man dressed in black?"
"They hired a driver to take me to and from the airport." His smile broadened. "Of course, when I got back, this was the first place I wanted to come."
Merle let out a sigh of relief and tucked the pistol into his waistband.
Herbie nodded at the gun. "What's with that?"
Merle looked sheepishly around the room. "I'm afraid we've been a bunch of old fools letting our suspicious minds get the best of us."
"I know what I saw," Jason retaliated. "And what about my cow and the corn in Billingsley's field?" He pointed to the radio. "The voices?"
"Some things can't be explained," Merle replied. "Let it go." He turned his head and looked at everyone else. "We all need to let it go and keep what happened here to ourselves. Do we all agree?"
Merle looked at Ben. "I'm really sorry, Ben."
Another car pulled into the parking lot. Merle looked at the clock on the wall. "Better get ready, Millie, it looks like the lunch crowd is coming in."
The next morning, Corky sat in Mel's Diner with a checkerboard placed between him and Ben. Corky said, "This year, I'm not going to hold back and I'm going to beat your sorry old butt."
"Good luck with that." Ben shoved a red checker onto an opposing square. "Your move."
Millie stared out from behind oily bangs with hollow eyes as she lethargically tromped up the aisle holding out a pot of coffee.
"Looks like everything is back to normal," Corky remarked. He picked up a checker off the board and readied it for his next move.
The front door opened and Herbie Fletcher walked through the entrance wearing a self-satisfied grin. He pushed past Millie and flopped down at the table with Ben and Corky. "Have you guys heard the news?"
Corky's eyes connected with Herbie's. "What news?"
"Somebody found that little teenage squack Toby Barnes has been doin' wandering along I-10 naked as a jaybird."
Corky set the checker down. "When?"
Ben sat up straight with a curious look on his face. "What happened?"
"This is where it gets juicy." He leaned across the table and lowered his voice. "They have her on the fifth floor in the hospital's mental ward pumped full of thorazine. She keeps babbling something about an alien abduction."
Corky slapped his hand down on the table and upset the checkers on the board. "Not this time, Herbie. Your stories have caused enough trouble already."
Herbie held up a hand like he was swearing into court. "So help me, it's the truth. It comes from a good source. I heard it from the head-nurse at Mercy that I dated awhile back."
Ben shook his head. "Knowing Toby, they were probably hopped on beer and drugs, that's all."
Herbie agreed with a nod of his head. "That might be true, but before I talked with Nurse Myrtle, I happened to be listening to my police scanner this morning."
Ben leaned in a little closer. "And?"
"The police found Toby's truck parked at Miller's Creek. It was like something really hot had burned off all its paint. And about fifty yards away they found a big round impression in the ground like something heavy had been sitting there."
Corky dismissed the story with a shake of his head. "You're just never gonna quit, are you, Herbie?"
Ben's eyes rounded out wide and he pointed to the window.
Corky turned his head in time to see a tow-truck pass by with the scorched remains of Toby's pickup riding on the back.
"Now you believe me?" Herbie puffed out his skinny chest. "The scary part is, the girl said these gray, bug-eyed aliens ran some awful experiments on their bodies."
"Where's Toby?" Corky asked.
"That's where it gets grim," Herbie answered. "The girl said just before they let her go she looked across the room and saw Toby laying on top of a metal table with all of his innards removed. She was sure that he was dead." He looked up and saw Millie standing next to him holding a pot of hot coffee. "I'm sorry, Millie, I didn't mean for you to hear that."
Millie set the coffee pot down as a customer walked through the front door. She pulled her hair back into a ponytail and the light came back into her eyes. She beamed a large grin and said, "Welcome to Mel's Diner."
Across town, Mayor Grundy was down in his basement working on his big surprise for the town.