“The film. On Curtis’s boots. I mixed it with another compound. But forget that. Don’t you get it? We passed the test. The next stage of evolution begins. The extraterrestrials have arrived!”
THE WHITE-HAIRED OFFICER, standing outside his prowler, pressed his red thumb down on the button. “Negro male, approximately twenty-five years old.”
“I’m black,” said Curtis. “Try saying it. California won’t fall in the ocean.”
A crowd had gathered at the edge of Golden Gate Park. Haight-Ashbury was not police territory, it was flower-child space, and the officer eyed the escalating situation. His partner—younger, brasher—was considering the nightstick that Curtis spotted inside the prowler. The stick didn’t worry Curtis personally, but if it came out—well, that wouldn’t do anyone any good.
The white-haired cop evidently considered this, too. When the dispatcher answered, he canceled the call and put the receiver back in its carriage.
“Look,” he said, in a tone as conciliatory as Curtis had ever heard from a man in uniform. “I’ll call you anything you like, son. However, I need to see some ID.”
“You said driver’s license, and I said I don’t have one.”
“So you did. But you must have something. Everybody’s got something.”
“Maybe a draft card?” sneered the younger cop. His uniform couldn’t disguise his softness.
Curtis reached his hand into the pocket of his jacket. He brought out his dog tags and held them out in his open palm.
The white-haired cop leaned over and examined them, looking bemused.
“You might’ve saved me some trouble if you’d produced these earlier, Corporal Washington.”
“Just Curtis now. I’m in the army of peace, and I hold no rank.”
“Nor is it a crime to walk down the street in the USA.”
“We got a report of three Negroes smoking reefer in the park,” said the young one. Defensive now.
“Three Negroes,” said Curtis.
“You don’t look like a vet,” said the young cop. “Half you hippies wear surplus, anyway. We’re supposed to tell you apart? Not exactly a regulation haircut you’re sportin’ there, man.”
“It’s called a natural!” cried a voice from the crowd. A sister. The crowd laughed.
“Quiet, people!” the younger cop called out.
The white-haired cop looked at the ground, like he was thinking, or maybe not. Maybe just looking at the orange-ish mold on Curtis’s boots. “How many tours did you rotate?”
Curtis regarded him. Too much beer, and too many shifts sitting in the prowler, but there was a man there, under all that flesh and behind that badge. For the first time, Curtis read the officer’s name off the tag on his breast. Sergeant Fred Hendricks.
“Two tours,” said Curtis. Plenty.
“Korea, myself. Three years. Took me the whole damn war to make corporal.” He smiled.
Curtis did not smile back.
Hendricks grew thoughtful. “From what I gather, your war’s different. Or maybe we didn’t know any better in my day.” He held his hand out.
Curtis looked at it. The man was trying, and that was more than most people did. Curtis took his hand and shook it.
“Have a good afternoon,” said Hendricks. He directed his partner back into the prowler with a nod. Looking outraged, the younger man obeyed.
The gathered park-children hooted and hollered. A few—mostly white—reached out to give Curtis soul-brother handshakes, or pat his back. Curtis accepted this politely, but moved along. He liked the park children: barefooted girls and shirtless boys who played under the July sun. He admired their optimism, their joy. Admired it, but didn’t feel it.
He turned, almost recognizing the voice of the man behind him, but not sure until he studied the half-remembered face.
Stanley. Hairier—who wasn’t these days?—a few inches taller, and filled out. Lennon glasses, beard, corduroy jacket. From a distance Curtis would’ve taken him for any of a particular species of intellectual youth. No longer the skinny kid that Curtis remembered from high school, but still Stanley.
“Man, I knew that was you!”
They embraced. Stanley patted his back hard. They both laughed, looking at each other, and not quite believing it.
“When did you get to California!” cried Stanley.
“A couple days ago,” said Curtis. “Hitched out.”
“I’ve been here all summer. What do you think of this place? Far out, right?”
A black man and a white man, hugging, and no one batting an eye. Wasn’t much of that back in Pittsburg, back in the day. California. San Francisco. The revolution. Maybe.
“I like it,” said Curtis.
“Where you crashing?”
“Here and there.” Nights in the park had been warm. In North Beach or downtown on Market Street, the chill wind didn’t seem to care about July. But out here in Haight-Ashbury the sun shown down every day, kissing the park children, bestowing its blessing on their Summer of Love.
“What happened to Boston?” said Curtis.
“Graduated. Got a nice bio-chem program at Berkeley here. Needed to go right into grad school to avoid—”
He stopped, almost embarrassed. Curtis understood, but didn’t feel Stanley had anything to be embarrassed about. Some kids went to college. Some went before the draft board, some to Canada, and some, like Curtis, joined the Marines.
“It’s okay,” said Curtis. “I’m back.” For good.
Stanley put his hands on Curtis’s shoulders. “Yeah. You made it.” Then he shook his head hard, as if to slough off the maudlin mood for them both. “Hey, what are you doing, right now?”
“Come to my pad. I’ve got something to show you.”
Stanley grinned. “Better living through chemistry.”
STANLEY’S PAD AT Clayton and Waller stood a stone’s throw from the purple Victorian where The Grateful Dead lived.
“Don’t get excited,” said Stanley, as they approached a different Victorian house, one with peeling paint and a peace flag hanging in a third-story window. “It’s only the basement, but cool people live upstairs.”
They descended the steps, and Stanley pushed the unlocked door open. “Moira?” he called. “She’s out, I think.”
Einstein poster, couple of mattresses on the floor, clothing sorted more or less in piles, sofa probably rescued from the sidewalk, small kitchen and a side room in the back—all anybody needed really.
“Is Moira your old lady?” Curtis asked.
Stanley reddened. “Aw, nah, not really. I don’t know. Could be. Who knows?” Despite the revolution, same old Stanley. “We’re more like—lab partners?”
Curtis raised an eyebrow.
“That’s what I want to show you,” said Stanley, animated. “Step this way, good sir.” He crossed the room and, with the fanfare of magician opening his trick bag, opened a door.
To the bathroom.
A bathroom fixed like something in a Frankenstein picture: beakers, test tubes, Bunsen burners—yet a bathroom, nevertheless.
“We shower upstairs,” said Stanley.
“What am I looking at here?”
“This, my friend, is the finest hallucinogen factory on the west coast.”
“Huh,” said Curtis.
“You’ve read Huxley’s Doors of Perception, I presume? No, don’t answer that. Insulting question. Even back in high school you’d already read everything.”
Not everything, thought Curtis. But he had read Aldous Huxley’s autobiographical essay detailing a mescaline experience.
“We’re on the verge of a new age, Curtis. Spiritually and technologically. It’ll all merge. Chemistry’s more than DDT and napalm. It has enlightened purposes. Ten years from now we’ll make drugs to raise IQ, drugs to teach children new languages, and most importantly, drugs to evolve us.”
He gestured to a worktable fashioned out of a door piled on cinderblocks. On it lay a long sheet of heavy-weight construction paper, held at the corners by various pieces of glassware. Tiny pinpoints dotted the paper at intervals.
“Blotter acid,” explained Stanley. He indicated the pinpoints. “Those are hits—doses. We cut the sheet into squares. You drop a square on your tongue.”
“How much do you get for these?” asked Curtis.
Stanley looked horrified. “You don’t sell acid, Curtis. You don’t sell love. You give it away. That’s the future.”
“You’re right,” said Curtis, feeling shame for his assumption about his old friend’s motives. Peace and love, he reminded himself. He could see it everywhere, but he couldn’t touch it, like a membrane lay over everything worthwhile in the world, and only himself on the outside.
“This batch is straight LSD, but these…” Stanley turned toward a shelf containing more glass, and stacks of notebooks, “…are my experiments. New discoveries every day.”
Curtis narrowed his eyes. “How do you know what you’re giving people?”
“These I don’t disseminate. Not yet. But how do I learn their effects? I test them.”
“Like on rats?”
“No. The way outsider scientists have always tested new discoveries. On themselves.”
“I take them, and I record my experiences. It’s the responsible way.”
“Don’t you worry you won’t….”
A voice came from the other room.
“Does he worry he won’t what? Come down?”
The speaker was a woman—tiny—no more than five feet tall. Her brown, curly hair sprouted above a paisley bandana. She slipped a knitted pouch off her shoulder. The pouch was full of green things: herbs, leaves, twigs.
“Hi,” she said. “I’m Moira.”
“This is Curtis,” said Stanley. “My best friend from high school. I found him walking Haight Street.”
“Right on,” said Moira. “What’s on your boots?”
“Oh, it’s harmless, I think,” said Curtis. “I can leave them outside. It wipes off, but it keeps coming back.”
The mold, or fungus maybe, a thin, orange film, had been on his combat boots a long time. He’d traveled half the world with it. When he’d been a Marine, he would wipe the boots down and brush them up, making them presentable. But the film always came back. Now that he never brushed them, it stayed there, not bothering Curtis any more than he bothered it.
Moira crouched down and studied his boots.
She reached into her pouch and came out with a pocket knife, flicking open the blade. She pointed it at Curtis’s boot, and then stopped, suddenly remembering a man was attached. “Oh, do you mind?”
Curtis said he didn’t, and Moira took a small scraping. She brought the blade up and examined it.
She looked up. “Are you staying for dinner?”
Curtis looked doubtfully at the tip of Moira’s knife and then at the pouch of what his father called “rabbit food.”
Moira burst out laughing. “Those aren’t groceries, those are samples. From the wilds of The Panhandle. You’re making spaghetti tonight, aren’t you, Stan?”
“Know any recipes, Curtis? I can cook two things, and Stan can make three. If you come up with two dishes yourself, we can cover a week.”
“Meatloaf,” said Curtis. “Cornbread.”
Moira stared at him blankly. She had large, dark eyes. “Cornbread’s a side dish.”
“I put peppers in it,” he said. Inspired by Moira’s eyes he added, “And black olives.”
She weighed the information. “Cornbread. Peppers. Black olives. Sounds all right.”
AFTER DARKNESS FELL, Curtis and Stanley carried the sofa into the backyard so they could all eat under the stars.
Stanley had made a cauldron of spaghetti—enough to feed a couple of squads—
which was good, because they were joined at intervals by various neighbors.
Eventually everyone else drifted away, leaving the three alone again. They passed a joint. Curtis took a hit or two to be sociable.
They talked late into the evening. Moira cracked up as Stanley regaled her with tales of misadventures in the Pittsburg school system. He cast Curtis as the hero, perpetually rescuing him from bullies: black bullies, white bullies—though naturally never a mixture of the two.
Stanley had always had an imagination, and he had certainly encountered his portion of misery by not fitting in with the working-class whites that formed the school’s nominal majority. Both Curtis and Stanley had liked war comics and westerns. Kid Colt. Two-Gun Kid. Sgt. Fury. Sgt. Rock.
That was Stanley’s version, but how much truth it contained, Curtis had no idea now. Time, as he understood it before the war, had retreated under the zip of tracer bullets whining through the air, memories enshrouded within a napalm-yellow haze. Curtis played agreeably along for Moira’s sake, and for his friend’s. Stanley had never been to war. He thought high school was war. Probably a lot of people did.
After midnight, Stanley rose, pointing a weary finger in the air. “Once more into the breach, dear friends. Who said that, Curtis?”
“You did,” said Curtis. “Just now.”
“No, come on,” said Stanley. “I told Moira you’ve read everything. Don’t make a liar out of me.”
“Don’t you know?” said Curtis.
“No. And neither does Moira, do you?”
Toking on the roach, she shook her head.
“See, Curtis? Moira and I wasted our youths reading textbooks and scientific journals. We’re thin on literature. So tell us.”
“Guess,” said Curtis.
“When in doubt, regarding conundrums of this nature, it’s best to go with Shakespeare or the Bible. I think it’s a war cry. Shakespeare. What do you say, Moira?”
“My people’s Bible is shorter than yours, but it’s still got plenty of war, I recall. Hm. Dear friends, that’s a leader speaking, but not Moses or Abraham. I say Shakespeare, too. Julius Caesar?”
“Henry the Fifth.”
“On the tip of my tongue,” said Stanley.
“Sure,” teased Moira.
Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more; / Or close the wall up with our English dead.
A pretty picture for a mountain of carnage. Smoke, the smell of corpses, cries of the dying—equally ugly at Agincourt as at Khe Sanh. Yet the lines still sent chills up his spine.
Curtis spoke. “In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man / As modest stillness and humility: / But when the blast of war blows in our ears, / Then imitate the action of the tiger; / Stiffen the sinews, / summon up the blood….”
“What a memory,” said Moira.
“Brothers, sisters,” said Stanley. “Goodnight.”
“Goodnight,” said Curtis.
A few moments after Stanley’s departure, Curtis, out of politeness, said to Moira, “You probably want to crash, too.”
“Oh, Stanley’s not crashing. He works at night.”
“Hang out awhile longer?”
“Sure,” said Curtis.
She moved closer, so close it would have been ridiculous not to put his arm around her.
“That’s nice,” she said, and laid her head against his chest.
Her hand rested on his stomach, in exactly the wrong spot.
“What’s that?” In her scientist way, she put her hand under his shirt, feeling a knot of tissue. It intrigued her and she moved her hand behind him, finding the scar’s mate. The exit wound. “Oh,” she said, glumly.
After some silence, Curtis said, “I feel I should ask what yours and Stanley’s relationship is.”
“We’re chums,” said Moira.
“Chums. That’s a word you don’t hear every day.”
“It’s my Brooklyn coming out,” said Moira. “What I mean is… well, how much do you want to know?”
“I don’t want to do anything to hurt Stanley.”
“Why would you?”
Curtis realized he might have overstepped. Probably had. Stupid. All she’d done was snuggle up to him. “You’re right, I shouldn’t make assumptions.”
“I know you fought Stan’s battles in high school, but he’s not as fragile as you think.”
Maybe he’s not a strong as you think. “Some people are better at fighting than others,” he said, feebly.
She pulled away a little.
Way to execute, Marine, Curtis told himself.
Then a girl—no more than sixteen or seventeen, Curtis supposed—with long blond hair and wearing a crocheted granny skirt, wandered into the yard.
She held an unlit cigarette. “Hey, you guys got a light?”
A book of matches rested on the arm of the sofa. Moira sat up and passed them to the girl.
“Can I bum one off you?” Moira asked.
The girl put her own cigarette to her mouth, and then reached into her bag for the pack.
She gave Moira one, then held the pack toward Curtis.
“Don’t want to short you,” he said.
“If you want one, take one,” said the girl. “They’ll make more.”
Curtis leaned forward and took one.
The girl lit hers, then held the match for Moira. Moira puffed, then the girl moved the match toward Curtis. He blew it out.
“Sorry,” he said. “Force of habit.”
The girl stared at him, but didn’t say anything. She held her cigarette out and he lit his off the end. She handed the matches back to Moira.
Standing over them, she smoked for a few minutes. “Well,” she said eventually. “See you guys later.”
After the girl left, Moira said, “I know what you were doing there. Three on a match, right?”
Curtis’ surprise registered.
“My uncles fought in World War II. What is it? First cigarette the enemy sights you, second, they aim, third….”
“They fire. It comes from the First World War,” said Curtis. The war to end all wars. “Trenches. Cannon shell. Some of the older guys live by it. Tradition.”
“Made a big impression on you.”
A lot of things had.
“So… where were we before?” she asked.
“We were getting into an argument.”
“Really?” She put her cigarette down, and moved toward him, lips parted.
A HAND SHOOK his shoulder.
“Get up,” said Moira, frantic. She was dressed. Bright sun leaked painfully through the basement window. Curtis shielded his eyes.
“Put something on,” she said. “It’s Stanley. He’s in the park.” She was shaking.
Curtis pushed the coverlet aside and pulled on his pants. He didn’t even think about boots or his shirt. This was all his fault.
Whatever it was.
They rushed out, Moira blurting that Stanley was tripping; he’d taken something he’d made last night. She didn’t know what.
Finding him wasn’t hard. A crowd had gathered at the base of a tree in a glen. Somebody was trying to talk Stanley down, others objected to this, saying he should be let alone.
Stanley was singing—wailing, rather. He was dirty, and from the way his arms and legs shook as he braced between two long, bending branches, he’d worn himself out to exhaustion.
With Moira following, Curtis pushed to the front of the gathering.
“Hey, Stanley,” he called up.
“Curtis! Do you see them?”
“What did you take?”
“Love Potion No. 9.”
“How about coming down? We’ll take you home.”
“Down? I’m never coming down. I am home!”
He spread his arms and fell. Not a terrible drop—six feet max. Curtis rushed under him. He didn’t manage to catch him, but his body cushioned the landing.
As he lifted Stanley up, he heard the blip-blip of a siren. The crowd turned, catcalling the prowler coming toward them over the grass.
“Curtis. Did you see them?” His pupils were dilated. Saucers.
To a reception of boos and downward thumbs, the police climbed from their prowler. Same two as yesterday. Hendricks and his partner.
“Huh,” said Curtis.
Moira, now supporting Stanley’s other side, asked Curtis what he meant.
“I know them,” he said.
“Is that good or bad?”
“We’ll find out in a minute,” he said.
“You again,” said the young officer. He grinned wide, like he’d won something.
Hendricks glanced at Curtis, then looked Stanley over. “What happened?”
“He’s sick,” said Moira.
Stanley happily muttered to himself about “them.”
“So he needs an ambulance,” said Hendricks.
“He’s not sick. He’s tripping,” said Curtis. “We’re taking him home. We’ll care for him until he comes down.”
“Friend of yours,” said Hendricks.
Curtis told him.
“And yours, miss?”
Moira hesitated, glancing at Curtis. He nodded, so she told Hendricks.
Hendricks didn’t write anything down. “If you’re taking him home, get going.”
“Thank you, Sergeant.”
Hendricks turned unceremoniously and got back in the car. No handshake this time. His partner followed, but looked back, finger-jabbing the air. “Let me see you again! Third time’s a charm!”
STANLEY BECAME LUCID around midnight.
“No, no, they were people!”
Curtis, sitting cross-legged on one mattress across from Stanley and Moira on the other, made a suggestion. “Hallucinations.”
“I’ve been on hundreds of trips: acid, mescaline, peyote, mushrooms. These were people.”
“What did they look like?”
“Bipedal. Smaller than us. Between three and five feet. Wiry. Striped, orange and white. Is that what they looked like to you?”
“To me?” asked Curtis. “I’ve never seen them, Stanley. You did.”
“Why do you think Curtis has seen them?” Moira asked.
“The culture!” Obviously, to Stanley, they should have both understood him.
“The film. On Curtis’s boots. I mixed it with another compound. But forget that. Don’t you get it? We passed the test. The next stage of evolution begins. The extraterrestrials have arrived!”
“How do you know that? How do you know they aren’t… say… leprechauns.”
Stanley regarded Curtis as if he’d uttered the dumbest imaginable question. “Leprechauns don’t have spaceships.”
IN THE BACK room, Stanley slept. Moira and Curtis talked in the front.
“Don’t worry,” said Moira. “He understood the risks.”
“Those statements don’t even line up,” said Curtis, his blood warming. “He knew he could fuck his brain up, so I’m not to worry that he’s fucked it up?”
“It’s unlikely he’s permanently altered his brain chemistry.”
Curtis looked at his boots, which rested by the front door, as they had all day.
“Why do you think he did it?”
Moira shrugged. “Because you’re his hero.”
Curtis looked away, disgusted. But at what, he didn’t know.
“Look, Curtis. In all probability the substance on your boots is benign. Stanley’s accounting of his trip isn’t so far off from other accounts in the literature.”
“You think so?”
“Curtis. Come on. Space aliens?” She paused. “Oh my god, Curtis. You believe him.”
“I took mushrooms once. Mescaline once. I never saw people that weren’t there. That doesn’t sound like a trip to me. It sounds like what straights think a trip is like. Imaginary beings walking and talking.”
“I’m not denying Stan had some deep experience comparable to psychosis, but he almost certainly didn’t meet extraterrestrials.”
“You’ve heard of Occam’s Razor?”
“The simplest explanation that fits the facts is probably true,” said Curtis.
“But not simpler than the facts. Why are you so calm about this?”
“Because I’m a scientist. Stan and I are both scientists. You’re a poet. But this is chemistry. We’re discussing the purely physical: a compound introduced into Stan’s system and resulting reaction. That’s all.”
“Never thought of myself as a poet.”
“What do you think you are?”
“That’s what I’m trying to figure out.”
Moira hopped up. “We need to change the mood in here. Lift our spirits. I’m going to heat up the leftover spaghetti. What are you going to do?”
“Hit the head,” he replied, standing up.
“Upstairs,” she said.
“I won’t disturb anything.”
He didn’t wait for her to respond. He went into the bathroom-lab, shut the door, and rifled Stan’s shelf shelves until he found what he wanted.
He came back out.
Moira was already in the kitchen. “You get a pass tonight on the cornbread,” she called, “but you gotta make it soon. A promise is a promise.”
“I will,” he called back. He pulled on his jacket. “I’m gonna walk around the block and clear my head.”
“Oh?” she said.
She called his name, but he was already out the door. He put a fungus-dipped tab on his tongue, and kept walking.
IN THE PARK he saw them: four crafts, clustered in a glen. Flower children, camping, seemed oblivious to their existence, as if in a separate reality.
Not flying saucers. These were boxy oblongs, like bladeless helicopters. They rested on pontoons. Opaque shells, not quite smooth. Curtis marked the seams of panels.
Then the nearest panel opened.
Inside crouched half-a-dozen creatures in close formation. Small, like Curtis had said. Orange and white striped. Uniform faces: bumps where noses would be, slits for eyes and mouths.
They noticed Curtis, and he formed the impression that this was the reason they’d opened the panel. They’d been waiting.
One hopped out. He (she? it?) held arms out, open palms, walking slowly forward. Curtis stiffened.
The creature paused, releasing a soothing tone. A scent filled the air. Curtis had nothing to compare it to, but it smelled pleasant—the scent of friendship.
The scent became stronger, and the creature reached out one hand. Curtis felt compelled to take it. He wanted to take it.
The creature’s wrist had a thin line around it. So did its neck. Seams, like those on the craft: thin, perfectly aligned. Clothing then, even over the faces. Which made sense. Spacesuits? No wonder they each looked exactly alike.
Not exactly. This one had extra markings across its right shoulder: amber hashmarks.
Curtis hesitated. Not much—but too much for the alien.
It signaled. A shrill cry ripped the air, a plume arrested Curtis’s nostrils.
The scent of war.
The creature crouched, protecting itself, and motioned the others forward.
The ship emptied. The squad fanned out. Weapons appeared from nowhere, long needle-thin cylinders, ends glowing like fire pokers. The panels of the other craft opened. More troops.
Shots stung the air, landing around him in sparks.
Tree line, thought Curtis.
He made it, sprinted between two wide-trunked oaks, then zigzagged to confuse pursuit. Blood pounded in his ears.
He tripped, rolled, brought himself back up. Keep moving! he ordered himself.
Then he stopped.
He slapped his face, and forced himself to take deep breaths. Dozens of people sleeping in the open glen and he’d left them under fire.
Crouching, he retraced his path, slowed near the clearing.
Gone. No craft. No stench. The people of the park still sleeping as before.
He crept through them. Some stirred, annoyed at this interloper stepping over them as they tried to rest. He looked for impressions in the grass, or anything.
He almost slapped his own face again, but didn’t bother.
You’re okay, he told himself. He almost chuckled. He turned to go.
Then he noticed the two oaks he’d passed between to escape.
He went and touched them to make sure. Inches above his head, the bark was shattered.
The holes still smoked.
BACK AT THE apartment, Moira smiled when he came in, looking up from the plate of spaghetti she was eating while sitting on the floor. Her smile disappeared quickly, replaced by shock.
She spilled her plate. “What happened?” she cried, going to him. She touched his shirt.
His clothing was sweat-soaked. He let her help him off with his jacket. He filled his lungs and exhaled slowly.
“How long was I gone?”
“Where were you?”
“The park. But how long?”
“Fifteen minutes. Twenty. What’s going on out there?”
“Fifteen minutes, that’s impossible. I’ve been tripping for—” He almost said hours, but he hadn’t been. No.
“You took some of Stan’s recipe. That’s why you wanted to use this bathroom. I knew it. Well, you’re home now, we’ll ride it out.”
“I’m not home,” said Curtis.
She put her hands on his cheeks. “You’re safe. That’s what I mean. I’ll take care of you.”
“I’m not tripping. I was. But I’m straight now.”
“I don’t think so,” Moira said gently. “Stan was tripping nine or ten hours.”
“Adrenaline. I think that did it.”
She looked closely at him, still holding his face. “Your pupils aren’t dilated. How much did you take?”
“Stan wouldn’t have taken more than that, probably. Maybe it affected your body differently.”
Curtis broke away from her, ran to the lab. On the shelf he found the blotter he’d torn his tab from. One large corner was gone, Stan could have taken as many as four or five tabs. No matter. Curtis started tearing the paper up.
Moira had followed him. “What are you doing?” she said.
“Getting rid of it.” He moved toward the toilet.
“No!” She put her hands up.
“Without it, we can’t see them. And they can’t see us.” It had to stay that way.
“So you’re going to introduce it into the San Francisco sewer system?”
“Let’s take a moment. If this drug is that dangerous, there are ways to dispose of it. And there’s no hurry.”
“You don’t know that.”
“You’re right. I don’t know. But I’ll tell you what I think. I think, physical signs to the contrary, you are still tripping. I think we should get you into dry clothes. I think we can decide this in the morning.”
“There’s five or six hits missing.”
“What do you mean?”
“If I took one, and he only took one then where’s the rest?”
Moira shrugged. “I….”
Curtis pushed past her, and ran to the back room where Stanley was sleeping.
Where Stanley was supposed to be sleeping.
The back door hung open.
Curtis raced out in time to see Stanley clearing the backyard gate.
Curtis pursued. He caught up to Stanley in the middle of the street and forced himself to ease up rather than tackle him.
“Get away!” cried Stanley. “Help me! He’s crazy.”
“I need the rest of it.”
“I heard you talking!” cried Stanley. “You want to destroy it!”
“They’re not what you think.”
Stanley smiled. “You saw them!”
Stanley reached his hand into his pocket, bringing up a handful of tabs. “Why do you want to kill this?”
“They came at me, Stanley. With weapons.”
Stanley laughed. “You’re having a bad trip, but this isn’t the war. The war messed with your mind.”
The war had done that, but he still knew what he’d seen.
Moira appeared. “Curtis, Stan. Back inside so we can discuss this rationally,” she said. “Before the cops come.”
The prowler turned the corner, silent, lights flashing. It stopped. Hendricks stepped out, grim-faced. His partner jumped out. “Look who it is!” said the young cop.
Moira turned to engage them. Hendricks put his hand up. He didn’t want to hear it.
“No!” cried Curtis.
Stanley shoved the tabs into his mouth, a couple fell on the ground. He bolted toward the park.
Curtis started after him.
“Stop!” yelled the young cop.
Curtis stopped. He crouched where Stanley had stood, and picked up the fallen tabs.
“Lay down!” cried the youth. Standing no more the three paces from Curtis, feet planted, he placed his hand on his unstrapped holster.
Curtis shoved the tabs in his mouth, then lunged. Tackling the cop, Curtis got the sidearm, then flung the stunned officer aside.
He was up and off. Hendricks wouldn’t shoot him, and he certainly couldn’t run fast enough to catch him. Curtis had a few minutes.
He found the glen as the drug took effect.
Four craft rippled, hardening into reality, slowly. Stanley stood before them. “Hey! Hello!” he cried. “Welcome.”
The flower children camping in the park were forced awake. “Quiet, man!” someone yelled.
Curtis, revolver in one hand, seized Stanley by the collar in the other. No time for reason. He had to drag him where the enemy couldn’t see.
Stanley flailed, nearly insensible from the drug, and fighting harder than Curtis expected. Curtis raised the pistol, ready to cold-cock him. Last resort.
A girl, huddled on the grass, rolled over and rubbed her eyes. Curtis knew her. Cigarettes. Three on a match.
“Hey,” she said to everyone and no one, “what’s that?” She pointed to the nearest ship. Waking campers turned.
They saw it.
The panels started sliding.
Curtis let Stanley go and raised the revolver in the air, firing once.
Chaos reigned. The children ran, Stanley ran, but none of them would be fast enough. Orange-striped shock troops poured out of the craft. Their horrible, gleeful war-scent filled the air.
Curtis saw the one that had approached him before, the squad leader. It screeched something, and emitted a new odor, one ripe with frenzy. Curtis didn’t need their language to understand the order, the actions of the troops afterward made it clear.
Fire at will.
Screams filled the air.
They aimed better now. They saw their targets clearly.
So did Curtis.
He dived flat on the grass, arms outstretched. Pistol steady, both hands. Five rounds left. Make them count.
First, the one that gave the order. In the chest. It squealed, and released a scent of shock.
He shot two others. Their shocked-scents intermingled, overwhelming everything else.
The other troops spun. Some of them still fired, but their shots went wild. They screamed, staggered. Fear.
A core group of five held on. Managing to focus on Curtis, they fought past their panicked, suddenly rudderless comrades to advance on him. Curtis shot two of them. They dropped, giving up their fear-scent.
Two others ran. One didn’t.
Empty, Curtis rose. The alien fired low, cutting him at the knees. Empowered, the creature hissed, and gave up a conqueror’s scent.
Curtis fixed his eyes on the creature. It advanced slowly. No discernable rank insignia. Not an officer, and it had been left alone. Still, it came.
“I get it,” said Curtis. “You’re the real killer in the outfit. Do you even know why? Were you born that way?”
Most of the flower children had fled into the woods now. The survivors. Casualties remained behind, three or four prone bodies—maybe alive, maybe dead, but not moving. One of them Stanley.
The alien braced its long weapon against one shoulder. It steadied the red-tipped end at Curtis’s forehead. Didn’t plan on missing.
Curtis—despite the stupidity of it all, the waste, the madness, despite everything he wanted to believe, everything he wanted to stand for—found himself looking at the creature with neither hate nor anger, but admiration.
“Your friends didn’t have much grit, did they? That why they came here? Easy pickin’s? Not you, soldier. No imitating the tiger for you, no need to summon up the blood. You were born ready, yeah? Stone-cold killer, you.”
The alien made no sound in response, offered up no telltale scent. The only answer it cared to give, it held in its hands.
A blast like a thunderclap blew past Curtis’s ear.
A hole appeared in the alien’s forehead: black and small. Its hands tremored open and its weapon fell. The creature dropped forward. Dead.
Curtis whirled. Hendricks holstered his sidearm. He walked toward Curtis and outstretched his hand. “My partner’s weapon,” he demanded.
Curtis surrendered it.
The sergeant inspected it quickly, then secured it in his belt.
A rustling came from the trees. Both men turned. Moira emerged. She looked with relief at Curtis. Short-lived. She spotted Stanley and rushed to him, kneeled and said his name. No response.
Curtis attempted to stand, but crumpled on his ruined knees.
“Don’t try to move,” said Hendricks.
Sirens filled the air.
“Curtis! Stan’s dead! How could he be dead?” Moira pleaded, wanting him to make it right.
“I’m sorry,” said Curtis.
Hendricks unhooked the handcuffs on his belt. He crouched, knees cracking. He bent Curtis’s arms back until the wrists touched. The handcuffs clinked shut.
“You saw them,” said Curtis, speaking to Hendricks, but still looking at Moira.
“I didn’t see anything.”
“I know you did. You fired so you must have. You dropped that one. You—” Curtis turned, expecting to see the body of the alien that had nearly killed him, the enemy that Hendricks had shot, and to see the bodies of the aliens he had himself killed.
Nothing. No ships either. Nothing in the glen but human casualties.
Curtis looked up into the sergeant’s eyes, searching for something. Maybe a secret signal. He didn’t find it.
“I did what someone had to do,” said Curtis.
“Lay down,” said Hendricks. “Face down.”
Flashlights flooded through the trees. Police. Ambulance men. The sergeant’s young partner among them, his face bloodied from where he had fallen when Curtis tackled him.
Hendricks lifted his hand: a wave, a salute.
Curtis watched Moira sobbing over Stanley’s body. He should cry too. He should feel agony because he’d lost his friend. But his friend was gone. No amount of crying or wishing would bring him back. He’d rather save his tears, if he ever found them again, for the living.
Curtis felt himself being lifted. Two big members of the police reinforcement phalanx picking him up. And then they took him away.
“Curtis!” cried Moira. “Curtis.”
He did not look back.
© Michael Canfield, 2016
From See the Elephant, Issue Two, Love and War in the Slipstream.
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Michael Canfield has published horror, mystery, suspense, fantasy, science fiction, and just-plain-odd stuff in Strange Horizons, Escape Pod, Daily Science Fiction, The Pedestal, and other places. His story “Super-Villains” was reprinted in the Fantasy: The Best of the Year series, edited by Rich Horton. Born in Las Vegas, he lives in Seattle and blogs occasionally at MichaelCanfield.net.