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This got everyone to settle down again. Skiddy and the other officers assigned people their red-zone stations for the night and gave them guns that shot out sticky tracking balls. Harlen got to choose his station, and he picked the one with Dennis. Among all the stations, it had the most unique bait—a pair of llamas—and believing the aliens would want something different to go in their collection, Harlen figured that it had the greatest chance for contact.
After hearing about the missing propeller, his mother dialed his father’s cell phone three times and called the nightclubs in Nashville and New Orleans where he’d performed. She tried his mother in Vermont, and when the old lady said that he wasn’t there and asked whether she should be worried, Harlen’s mother paused for a second, and said no, that they were just having another fight. Then she sat back on the sofa, let her arms fall to her side, and started to cry.
“You couldn’t have driven a little faster that night? You couldn’t have tried to actually catch up to him?”
Harlen hugged his mother. He was glad that she believed him, and that she was finally worried. “Sorry. It’s all my fault.”
She wiped her eyes on the sleeves of her nurse’s scrubs. “No, sweetie. I shouldn’t have said that. We should take you to a doctor, get you checked.” She stood and pulled Harlen up. “Let me take a look at you.” She lifted his T-shirt, pressed the spots right below his ribs, and extended his arms to examine his armpits.
“Mom, I’m okay. They didn’t do anything to me, I’m sure. I’m sure they wouldn’t do anything to Dad, either.”
“Maybe you’re right.” She sat back down. “Maybe your dad’s not even up there anymore.” She fidgeted with her name tag, fogging it up with her breath, and then wiped it down with the fat of her palm.
“Yeah, they probably don’t keep humans at all,” he said. “I mean, look at me. I’m still here. The farmers who got their stuff stolen are having a waylaying tonight. Chances are nothing will come out of it, but it’s better than sitting around.”
He wasn’t sure if he believed in the waylaying himself. What chance did they really have in sighting a spaceship, much less tagging one with a tracking ball? Still, maybe he was wrong for doubting. After all, the aliens were interested in street signs and turbine propellers. How would anyone know what type of Earth technology they found compelling, what type they were susceptible to?
“You should come,” he said. “At the very least I think it’ll make you feel better.”
His mother looked up. “They’re having a what?”
The spot Dennis picked out was a clearing behind his farm where his grandma had once played softball. The area hadn’t been used in decades, and it had become dense with tall grass and wildflowers. A column of cypress trees, the moonlight peeking through their highest branches, lined up like manikin sentries and marked the end of Dennis’s land. As Harlen waded through the brush following the old farmer, who was pulling on the llamas, foliage grazed his calves, jutted up his shorts, and brushed against his thighs.
“Would’ve done you better to wear jeans,” Dennis said, giving his overalls a hard smack.
From his pocket he took out a can of mosquito repellent and handed it to Harlen. Then he dragged the llamas to the center of the clearing and waved Harlen over.
“Hold on to the leashes for a second,” he said.
As soon as Harlen gripped the ropes, the llamas bolted, sending him face-first into a patch of jagged grass.
“Whoa, there!” Dennis laughed.
He grabbed the ropes before the animals could get away and together they pulled them back to the center of the clearing.
“Strong little suckers, aren’t they?”
Harlen brushed off his clothes with one hand. He would’ve been embarrassed if the old farmer wasn’t enjoying his misfortune so much.
“Knew I should’ve picked the teddy bear group,” he said.
“I thought there was supposed to be another one of you coming.”
“My mom’s on her way. She’s trying to get off work.”
She had also said that she should call Grandma again and tell her about the situation. He would’ve gotten his stoner friends to come, too—they’d have enjoyed this—but they were all vacationing with their families.
Dennis stepped on a patch of ground until the grass bent down. He took out a steel stake from his toolbox and began hammering it into the smoothed-out spot. The llamas gurgled and tried to stumble away, but Harlen was ready this time, yanking their leashes back.
“Why’d you pick llamas?”
“They look like aliens.” Dennis grinned. “No, it’s ’cause I don’t want to lose another horse.” He took off his red cap and exchanged it for the leashes. “It says second place but it really should’ve said first. My Dolly is a magnificent stallion. The same age as my daughter, who passed away before Dolly won her first race. The horse was supposed to be hers, you know, when she was old enough to ride.” The old man grew quiet for a second, tying the leashes around the stake. “Anyway, my Dolly had a temper like most stallions but also had a soft side he’d share with people he knew. He’d kick off my son because the boy didn’t like horses but he’d let my eight-year-old girl ride on him for as long as she wanted. He was smart like that, knew who appreciated him. Every time I touched the spot between his eyes, he’d nicker like a kitten.”
They moved to a spot between the cypress trees where the llamas were in clear view. Harlen took the camera that Deputy Skiddy gave him, set it so that it’d take a picture whenever it detected a dramatic change in light, and taped it on a tree branch above him. Dennis leaned the tracking rifle on the trunk. Then they squatted in the brush and waited.
“Maybe the aliens took him because they knew Dolly was special.”
Dennis nodded. “Let me tell you: that was the best horse in the world. These aliens, whatever they are, they’re cherry-pickers.”
Harlen pictured the aliens in their cockpit with a guidebook on horses. “What about that one?” one of them asked, pointing a long pale finger at a mare on the wobbly image screen. “Receding mane,” the other would say, “a sign of illness.”
After about an hour, a bright pair of lights appeared in the woods beyond the clearing. Harlen shook Dennis awake, and the two of them stood up.
“That there it?”
“I don’t think so,” Harlen said. “Not bright enough, and not in the sky.”
The lights dimmed, changed to a single beam, and a moment later Deputy Skiddy came out of the woods waving a flashlight. When the beam passed by their spot in the cypress, the camera went off. Harlen removed the print from the Polaroid and saw a blinded, startled Skiddy in the photo. Dennis waved.
“First alien of the night,” he said.
“How are you two holding up in here?” Skiddy asked.
“Nothing so far,” Harlen said. “What about the other spots?”
“Nothing.” Skiddy shook his head and turned off the flashlight. “There was an accident, though. Two cars crashed on the street that’s missing traffic lights. Luckily no one was hurt. How are the llamas doing?”
“Still there.” Dennis pointed to the pair, who were lying down on all fours, their legs bent and parallel to their bellies. “Those aliens sure are causing some mischief.”
“Yeah,” Skiddy said. “We have some blocks without power, too. EDP’s shipping over a new propeller, but it’d be a week or so before things return to normal.”
“A missing propeller blade can cause that many houses to lose power?” Harlen asked.
“Oh yeah,” Skiddy said. “Without the propeller the turbine’s nothing. And there aren’t that many turbines to begin with.”
When the deputy said that, Harlen got the distinct feeling that the aliens were not coming, that the bait they were using was all wrong. The aliens, he imagined, were collectors of things important to people. The stop signs were important to everyone: they told you where to go, when to stop, when to be cautious. Dennis’s prize horse was important because it reminded him of his daughter. The aliens kept his father because he was important to Harlen, and they returned Harlen because they deemed that he was, like the llamas, not important at all.
“The night when I was driving after my dad, when they took me up there, I pulled to the side of the highway because I wanted to smoke pot,” Harlen said. “I couldn’t keep up with him so I said, fuck it, and gave up. It wasn’t the first time he left me and my mom. I just rolled down the window and got high, forgot about everything.”
The two men stared at him. In the foggy uncomfortable silence Harlen knew they were trying to decide what to say, whether the occasion called for discipline or sympathy. He didn’t really understand what came over him, why he suddenly felt this overwhelming, self-destructive hopelessness. Maybe the aliens did do something to his brain after all.
“That’s a brave thing for you to say, Son,” Dennis said.
Skiddy nodded. “You’re lucky I’m not a state trooper,” he said. “Or the DEA. Fuck it. I would’ve done the same. It’s funny how the world spins sometimes. When something isn’t there it becomes important, even when it doesn’t need to be, even when it shouldn’t be.”
Harlen leaned his head back on the tree and regretted that he didn’t bring his pipe. He’d like nothing else, at this moment, than to smoke the dope his father bought him with Dennis and Skiddy. He was relieved, though not because the deputy didn’t condemn his drug use. Somehow he knew this lightness wouldn’t last, but he breathed in a lungful of air and let the wind pass through the hairs on his arms. He was where he was supposed to be, and the only thing he could do was wait.
“Ready the rifle, folks,” Dennis said. “We got more aliens coming.”
Harlen turned to the woods and saw another set of headlights shining through the trees. A car door slammed. Then there was the sound of twigs snapping, followed by a woman cursing. A moment later Harlen’s mother came out to the clearing holding an aluminum tray.
The three of them waved.
“I baked cupcakes for the waylaying,” she yelled. “Well, and also to cheer me up. I hope everyone likes M&Ms.”
“Evening, ma’am,” Skiddy said, lifting the tray’s cover. “Don’t mind if I do.”
The aluminum reflected the moonlight and activated the camera again. Harlen removed the Polaroid and put it in his pocket as a souvenir. Later, when he came home, he’d write on the bottom: The day I found my dad.
“What a lovely pair of llamas,” his mother said.
Dennis took a cupcake.
“They’re lovebirds, alright,” he said, M&Ms crunching in his mouth. “The female birthed twins a year ago.”
“Has Harlen been behaving?”
Skiddy stared at Harlen just long enough for the boy to worry about what he might say. Then he smiled. “You have a really good kid here, a real trouper.”
Dennis patted Harlen on the back. “Tough, too. You should’ve seen him at the town hall, banging on the benches and reciting lines from the Bible.”
His mother turned to Harlen in surprise. “The Bible, huh? I never knew.”
“It was very moving,” Skiddy said. “Shut everyone right up.”
“Your grandmother would be proud.”
“How is Grandma?” Harlen asked.
“Hysterical. Does it make me awful that I feel better knowing she’s hysterical? It’s like by telling her I’ve transferred some of my worry onto her.”
Harlen shook his head. “There’s nothing to be hysterical about. The aliens just think Dad is special. They should have him for a while, get to know him.”
They crouched behind the cedar, lowered themselves into the grass, and stared out at the clearing. The llamas laid their heads on top of each other and closed their eyes. The sky was cloudless, as clear as a snow globe. Nothing would be missed, no matter how faint or fleeting.