Later, when asked to speak about what happened for the second time, Harlen recalled that it was in fact a single object, faint and blurry one second, close and vibrant the next. It hovered overhead: two blazing parallel rods, about a hundred feet across, connected by a transparent, egg-shaped disk that expanded and collapsed like an inflating and deflating balloon. There was a lot of pressure, as if giant hands were pushing down on his shoulders and scalp. “As soon as my knees gave, the pressure left and what I saw changed. I mean, I didn’t blink or turn my head. I was standing on I-65 on a summer’s night and then I was somewhere else, like the highway was a curtain and someone pulled it off.”
No matter how many times the locals pressed him, he didn’t remember seeing cows, horses, or farm equipment. There were no dislodged stopped signs, traffic lights, or car hoods floating about. A sterile, ammoniac smell pervaded. The interior, slightly see-through, dimmed to silver, then brightened to orange. His first impression was the vastness. Either he was shrunken down or the interior was expanded. He only saw two objects. A few yards in front of him a chicken bobbed its head. In the distance, barely visible, his father was riding away on a motorcycle. Harlen ran, but he couldn’t even reach the chicken. He was running in place, though it didn’t feel like he was running in place.
“How’d you know it was your father?” a farmer asked. He wore a red netted cap with a colorful button on it that read: 2nd place horse, county fair 2010.
“Because I was out on I-65 following my dad.” Harlen didn’t tell them his mother had thrown a jar of pickles at his father that night. He didn’t say that his father, after shattering a plate, had threatened, like he had always done, to leave for good. A year ago, Harlen had caught his father at a rest stop twenty miles from their house and convinced him to come home.
“So there was a chicken,” another farmer said. “And the thing was larger than a football field. If you add the two together, there’s a good chance other animals are up there.”
Through the stained-glass window of the town hall, the moon loomed a melted, buttery blue.
“Could be. I didn’t see any.”
“Do you think you might’ve just been in some kind of large warehouse?” a woman on the far side of the room asked, speaking for the first time. “Like, it wasn’t some kind of abnormal place at all? Like, the people who stole our stuff took you there and drugged you and you were just seeing things.”
Harlen shrugged. “Could be. Felt pretty real, though.” The police had asked him a similar question, and he had said the same thing.
“All right, folks,” Deputy Skiddy said. “That’s enough for one night. Let the kid get some rest.”
Skiddy had been the one who saw him lying on the side of the highway. Harlen had his arms and legs spread wide. He was lucky a semi didn’t amputate his limbs, Skiddy said. The deputy took him to the station and questioned him. Afterwards, he asked if Harlen could come back tomorrow and talk to some people at the town hall.
“What I don’t get is why you pulled over in the first place,” Skiddy said, after the town hall session concluded.
They were on their way back to Harlen’s house. Harlen sat next to Skiddy, which made him feel like they were partners. Even the deputy of a deputy, he figured, had to have the power to order his father to come home.
“You were on your pop’s tail,” Skiddy continued. “That part I get. And in the middle of it you just stop and pull to the side? Why?”
“I guess I was getting sleepy.”
Skiddy chuckled. “Well, you’ve sure had one hell of a nap.”
Harlen stared out the window. Among the smoky clouds there was something blinking. He stretched his neck and peered up through the slit. The wind blew his hair back and made his eyes water. The light was from a plane or water tower, something familiar.
When he came home his mother was clipping her toenails and watching The Good Wife on CBS. A tuna sandwich and a bag of chips were on the coffee table, and she pushed the plate in his direction. He sat down on the couch, took a bite, and reached for the remote.
“You don’t have to do what they tell you, you know,” his mother said. “The police can’t force you to talk to anyone.”
“I don’t mind.”
He wouldn’t admit it, but he liked when older people talked to him. A junior in high school, he hung out with two boys who wore their hair long and were always asked not to lean back in their seats. They liked to get stoned and climb stuff: rooftops, balconies, billboards. One time, Harlen climbed up the tall walnut tree in front of their school and stayed there the entire night. The next morning, the principal recited a line from the Bible: So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see Him, for He was about to pass that way. There was no tone of reprimand, and Harlen liked that he was supposed to know what the passage meant, even though he didn’t.
“What did they ask you this time?”
“Mostly the same things. The strange part was they wanted to know if there were other animals up there besides the chicken, if the place was large enough to hide cows.”
His mother laughed. She grabbed two ruffled potato chips and put them on the side of her head. “Give me all your animals and farm equipment.” She spoke in a high-pitched, leprechaun-like voice. “Our planet, with all its space-faring technology, is in grave need of some quality beasts of burden.”
“You don’t believe me.”
“Sweetie, the problem isn’t me not believing you. It’s not even that other people won’t believe you. It just seems so strange. Your father, riding his motorcycle in there?”
He regretted telling her about seeing his father. He had hoped that she’d be worried. Last night, when he had come home, she had hugged him and said, “It’s a good thing the police found you.” She made no mention of his father, even though Harlen could tell she wasn’t angry anymore. She was like that: funny and forgiving one minute, deadpan and merciless the next. She made his father leave because of dishes—dirty saucers soaking in the sink.
“Maybe Dad’s still up there,” Harlen said.
He got up and took his plate to the kitchen. His mother followed him. He threw out the potato chip wrapper and squeezed a droplet of detergent onto a sponge.
Crossing her arms, his mother leaned on the fridge. “Sweetie, your dad’s somewhere far away, but he’s definitely not up there.” She glanced at her watch. “Well, almost ten. My shift’s starting soon.”
She went to the bedroom and came back wearing her blue V-neck nurse’s scrubs. The car keys jingled in her hands as she leaned in and pecked him on the cheek.
“Smile a little, sweetie,” she said. “Don’t be so serious all the time, or you’ll end up just like your dad. It’s not everyday someone survives an alien abduction!”
Harlen couldn’t quite figure it out himself. Why would extraterrestrials steal farm animals and street signs and then abduct him and his father? Why did they return him and not release the animals? Did they still have his dad? He imagined they were catalogers of the galaxy, taking things back to a museum on their home planet. Exhibit A: Earth. In the left display, we have some street signs and vehicle parts. Earthlings use these to travel small distances on their tiny world. In the center panel, we have some more interesting specimens: animals that the earthlings have subjugated. They either eat them or parade them around. Lastly, to our right, we see the most interesting display we have: a recording of a young earthling and an older one who shares half of the young one’s DNA. We aren’t sure what they’re doing. The young one chases the old one, but the old one doesn’t care. Our top earthologists have tried to unravel what’s going on, but without any success.
Harlen yawned, and took another toke of his British Columbian bud. He didn’t smoke in his room often, but he figured that even if his mom came home and noticed the smell, she’d give him a pass this time. He thought about all the abduction stories he’d heard: one where aliens gave a woman an abortion, another where they inserted a long needle into a man’s earlobe, and one where they made two summer camp counselors seek psychiatric help for the rest of their lives. All the abductees seemed to share a feeling of violation, either being probed, dissected, or lobotomized. His experience, on the other hand, felt liberating, as if the irrelevant parts of his life faded away and it was just him and his father.
Well—and the chicken.
He wished they would have kept him up there, stashed away with their hoard of intergalactic miscellany, oscillating to the other side of the universe. He wouldn’t mind being part of an exhibition with his dad.
His father, his mother often said, was a serious man who refused to do serious things. When it came to the nonessentials—owning a motorcycle, playing bass guitar in a band, keeping his face in a persistent, resigned frown—he was serious. Getting a job that made consistent money, on the other hand, was beneath his significance. Harlen thought this was awfully unfair of his mother, who didn’t love her husband enough to accept his flaws. When his dad was around, every cent he made, either from tips at a bar or a performance at a wedding, he gave to the family. He used his first royalty check to buy Harlen’s mother a crystal pendant from Swarovski. Often, he gave Harlen an eighth to split with his friends.
Harlen turned on his cell phone, dialed “dad,” and waited until the voicemail finished.
A waylaying, the farmers called it. An attempt at ascertaining validity, establishing communication, perhaps even retrieval. They wanted to set up “red zones” of probable attack. New stop signs with hidden cameras were installed at T-intersections. Bulls were left to graze on knolls away from the herd as bait. A rusty motocross bike was parked a mile from where Harlen was abducted, its rider an oversized teddy bear.
After Harlen’s abduction, there’d been two more strange instances of thievery. Farmer McDowell’s scarecrow, long since retired, vanished clean off the ground. McDowell claimed that he saw a glimpse of a gigantic sandwich-like object floating outside his house. What considerably increased police involvement, though, was the disappearance of a propeller from a wind turbine four miles up from town. The sheriff hired special deputies who worked for the power plant. Together with Skiddy and the new officers, along with a check from EDP Renewables North America, the sheriff’s department rallied victims and drew up plans for Operation Waylay.
“I still think we’re jumping the gun here,” the woman from the back said. “Why don’t we exhaust all plausible scenarios before we conclude that God doesn’t exist and aliens stole our stuff?”
The crowd began to murmur. There were twenty-two of them gathered among the pews of the town hall, which had been converted from an Episcopal church in the 1960s. Harlen observed that if they’d been carrying pitchforks and torches, they might as well have been going after Dracula.
“That propeller weighed twenty tons.” The farmer wearing the red cap, whose name Harlen learned was Dennis, pointed a gray, flaky finger at the woman. “It takes three cranes to lift and install. A stadium-full of high school troublemakers couldn’t pull off a prank like that in a million years.”
“There are magicians in this world who’ve done much more unbelievable acts. Don’t mean they’re not trying to pull a blanket of lies over your eyes.”
After the woman said this, the people inside divided into two groups, those standing behind Dennis and those behind the woman. Harlen stood to the side, next to Skiddy and the special deputies.
“Now folks,” Skiddy said, scratching his head with his deputy’s cap in his hand. “Nobody here is saying God doesn’t exist. Nobody’s even saying we’re going out and looking for aliens. This is Operation Waylay, everybody, not Operation ET-slay.”
“Jesus would be ashamed at the nonbelievers in this holy room.” The woman’s fist shook with anger. “All of you looking up at the sky with your cameras and tape recorders and iPads, searching, not for Him, but for some pagan, horse-stealing deity riding around in a water balloon.”
The folks behind her nodded and started yelling.
“Now look here,” Dennis shouted back. “I’ve gone to church for as long as I could—”
Harlen stepped forward and pounded on the back of a pew until everyone stopped talking. “Luke 19:4—So he ran ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see Him, for He was about to pass that way.” He glanced behind at Skiddy. “My dad might still be up there. We want a better view, that’s all. A better angle.”