“It’s always a truck that passes on the left,” Brian said. A too-long cigarette dangled in his little slit of a mouth. Ash took up a good third of it, impossibly. That much ash should have flicked off by now. The suspension in the Ford wasn’t gone, it was on hiatus, like Moonlighting.
“Every damned time,” he continued, as a Silverado pulled along side and then past them.
“Know why that is Stevie?” He finally flicked his ashes towards the cracked window. The ash seemed to float in the air for a moment before being slurped out the window, more like leaves on a stream than ashes in the air.
“Because truck drivers are assholes. Not ‘truck’ truck drivers. Those guys are professionals. Got no beef with them. They’re just doing a job. This asshole,” he waved at the truck with his cigarette. “This asshole is just in a hurry to go kill something.”
The camouflage topper on the Silverado told that story.
“I used to love probing assholes,” he said. Smoke swirled around his oversized grey head. His lids narrowed into a scowl Steve was too familiar with, turning his featureless black eyes into slits.
“Well, that’s generally where the probing is done,” Steve managed.
Brian fell into a fit of laugh-coughing, then flicked the remains of his cigarette out the window.
Ely isn’t like other towns. Everyone says that, don’t they? Everyone’s town isn’t like other towns, and that’s true enough. Everyone is a unique snowflake in a glacier of snowflakes. Ely is just another little clump of frost. Except for the black flecks that speckle it. Sprinkles Mr. Culpepper called them. Mr. Culpepper liked snow.
“Damnit Brian, quit filching the Cools!” Mr. Culpepper yelled from behind the counter at the Standard station. Steve and Brian were out back, smoking filched Cools. Steve looked a little green, but Brian basked in the smoke. He held court in the thin streams of gossamer that he blew from the slits of a nose.
“Fuck off Clem,” he yelled back.
Culpepper was always short on Cools. Brian saw them as a job benefit, one he was entitled to. Culpepper yelled, Brian smoked, Culpepper fumed.
“Like I was saying,” Brian said to Steve, “I need some help picking something up. It’s just over in Finchford, you up for a little road trip?”
How do you say no to a grey alien smoking filched Cools?
“It’s a space thing, isn’t it?” Steve asked. He was too young to be bouncing along next to an alien in a borrowed Ford. He’d graduated in May, but he looked younger. A haircut would have helped that, his ball cap hardly contained the curls that sprouted.
“It’s not a space thing,” Brian said.
Gravel roads have a taste. It’s chalky, for the well maintained ones. For the poorly maintained ones it’s more of a dirt flavor, not enough limestone rock to cover the earth. Add in summer humidity and you get a crust of crud sticking to sweaty skin that leaves you feeling like the earth is trying to pull you under.
Dark clouds were gathering off to the west, to the place they were heading. Brian said Finchford, but they’d passed that hamlet ten minutes ago with hardly a pause for the lone stop light that adorned what passed for a main street.
The clouds lightened as they rose, into a great spew of white, thousands of feet up that covered half the sky. Steve knew that meant a big storm. Mostly, storms built into little marching thunderheads on the plains, soldiers spewing their downpours across the fields. Every now an then though, those soldiers merged into a great dark and light mass to smite the fields with lightning, hail, and worse.
You can taste a storm before it strikes. There’s a cool draft that pushes the humidity past you and wicks the sweat off the back of your neck. It smells like fresh cut grass, like green things trying to cement their hold on the earth before the deluge descends.
“Well, what is it then?” Steve asked. It had to be big, whatever it was, or they wouldn’t have taken Culpepper’s pickup.
“Here we are.” The farmhouse Brian pulled up to was old, the shingles curled and the white paint on the sides flecked.
Space things were why Steve hung out at the Standard, why he was around Brian the Alien as much as he could be, probably more than was appropriate. Steve loved space, had ever since being enthralled by black and white images on a tiny television, Neil Armstrong hopping around on the moon.
Brian almost never talked about space, it was a sore spot for him. Steve learned not to bring up NASA.
“Assholes!” Brian would mutter.
Still, every now and then Brian would scoff at something on the radio and correct the news Steve listened to.
“Cepheids aren’t the same. Christ, you people are so fucking stupid.”
Brian knocked on the side door to the farm house. His tiny hand looked like it might break on the door, but the rap was solid. The storm rumbled off to the west.
“Who is it?” an old lady demanded. She wrenched open the door, ready for a confrontation. Must not get many visitors.
“Oh,” She said, looking down into Brian’s inky eyes.
“Lucile,” he said, nodding slightly.
“It’s out back, next to the hog pen.”
“Bring the truck around, would you?” Brian commanded Steve. Brian’s words felt cold, and a little slimy, like a wet willie. He didn’t command people often, but it was never pleasant. Steve climbed into the truck and started it up before he knew what he was doing.
The deer was breathing rapidly when Steve parked the truck. Deer. The thought floated through Steve’s mind in a meandering path, sauntering through his head as Brian stooped over the injured creature.
The storm blew cool air across the fields of corn and soybeans.
“Mother fuckers,” Brian muttered. His tiny grey hands petted the deer’s fur, inspected the bloody chunk that had been shot out of the left leg. The deer struggled to get up, to flee, to escape for what remained of its brief life.
“Just settle down,” he commanded. The deer relaxed.
“I’m going to need your help getting it into the truck.”
“Uh, okay,” Steve said.
Thunder rolled across the fields.
“So you’re a vet?”
“Why do you think I had that probing gig?”
“Oh. I mean — I thought all…”
“You thought probing was part of every alien’s list of duties?” Brian asked.
He sighed, relaxed, slumped a little, his tiny grey chest taking a concave hollow. “Mother fuckers,” he mumbled again.
“Sleep,” he told the deer, stroking its head with his hand.
He sat there for a breath, for another, for the eternity it took the deer to die. The wind picked out. The deer was still.
“Okay. Come on,” he got up and bent to lift the front of the deer. It should have been comical, tiny grey alien stooped over a deer as big as he was, bigger even. It wasn’t comical.
The rain started as they lifted the body into the truck bed. Steve got behind the driver’s seat. Brian went to the door and said something to Lucile, Steve couldn’t hear any of it over the pattering of raindrops on the truck’s cab.
“Albernette,” Brian said getting into the truck. The door squeaked as he slammed it shut.
“What’s in Alerbette?” Steve asked, backing out into the gravel road. Lightning crashed a few miles off, thunder ripping through the cool air.
“Locker. They owe me a favor. Besides, they give the meat away to the shelters in Cedar Rapids.”
Brain felt different, smaller, and stranger. Steve glanced over at him. The rain that caught him made his skin and eyes glisten. Brian didn’t sweat, not that the rain looked like sweat.
“Have you ever told a person to sleep?” Steve asked. Brain didn’t answer. The storm kept pace with them as they headed back to the highway, through Finchford. The rain rattled the cab and gave the vents a pungent, wet limestone taste.
Once they found the highway they turned north, and left the storm behind. The vents cleared of the limestone stench, and they rolled the windows down to let the cool, after storm air in.
“Yeah,” Brain said, almost too quiet to be heard over the wind from the highway. “I have.”