-Damon Knight. Often misattributed to Charles Fort.
December, 1967, West Virginia:
The knock came at midnight. Keel answered. It was the man in the black suit. He came in, closed the door, and handed Keel a stack of papers.
“You’ll be happy to know that you’ve finished your report,” he said. “Here it is.”
Keel riffled through the pages. “What did I conclude?” he said.
The man in the black suit smiled. “You’ve determined that the initial sightings of the creature dubbed ‘the Mothman’ were in fact merely sightings of a large sandhill crane off of its general migratory pattern. Subsequent witness reports were a combination of mass hysteria, hoaxers, and the same unusual but perfectly harmless and terrestrial bird.”
Keel sat in the motel room’s only chair, reading. He was bleary-eyed and unshaven. The room stank of liquor. “And the UFO reports?” he said.
“A similar combination of natural phenomena and mass hysteria. The reports of, ahem, ‘Men in Black' harassing the locals were just a series of misunderstandings blown out of proportion because of the general atmosphere of paranoia and tension.” The man in the black suit nodded at the pages. “Or so you've decided.”
Keel grunted and dropped the pages on the table. The man in the black suit handed him another sheet of paper. “We just need you to sign here,” he said. Keel signed, though his hand was shaking and he made a mess of it. The paper was dated December 14th—but today was only the twelfth. The man in the black suit snapped the document into his briefcase and said, “Done. Do you feel better?”
“No,” said Keel. The man in the black suit acted as if he did not hear.
“I believe you have something for me?” he said.
Keel brought out a heavy cardboard box. “That’s all of it,” he said. “Tapes, transcripts, photos, everything I got from all the witnesses. The original draft of my report is in there too.”
The man in the black suit read the draft in silence, pursing his lips now and then. “Fine work,” he said. “It’s almost too bad no one will ever get to read it. Of course, the report we’ve furnished is fine work too. Better, in that it will put the public’s mind at ease.”
“Do you really think it will?” Keel said.
“Somewhat. Time is really what the people need; time to forget. Most will. Not you or I, of course, but then, we’re different. Aren’t we, Mr. Keel?”
The man in the black suit turned to go, taking the box with him. Keel stopped him at the door.
“Wait,” he said. “How long until I can…”
“Kill yourself?” said the man in the black suit. He pondered. “Hmm…we’d prefer at least a year. Any sooner than that might damage your credibility after the fact. But if it gets to the point where you really can’t take it anymore…eight months is acceptable. There will be no reprisals against your loved ones after that point.”
Keel sagged, relieved. Then he seemed to struggle with something more. The man in the black suit nodded, almost a kind gesture. “Is there anything else on your mind?” he said.
“Something terrible is going to happen tomorrow, isn’t it?” Keel said.
“Terrible things do happen, sometimes,” said the man in the black suit. “If you really want to know the truth…well, just look outside. No, not there; the window.”
Keel touched the curtain and the man in the black suit nodded. Keel pulled the curtain aside; a red glow, like a neon sign, filled the windowpane, washing over him. The man in the black suit was careful to look away, turning around and even putting his hat over his eyes until he heard the curtain move back. Keel looked pale and dazed.
“You understand now?” said the man in the black suit. Keel said nothing; there was nothing to say. The man in the black suit left. Keel was alone.
Well, not entirely alone. The thing at the window was still with him. But in time, it left too.
April, 2007, California:
"Don't say anything," he thought. "Nobody else saw it but you, and if you say anything they'll think you're crazy. So don’t say anything."
This he repeated to himself as the train's brakes squealed and the doors snapped open. "MacArthur, this stop is MacArthur," the operator said.
Kenneth stepped onto the elevated platform, knees shaking. He felt like he was suffocating; he wanted to claw at his throat and fight for breath, but no, that might give him away. Everyone on this train platform was Kenneth's enemy; if he breathed one word of what he saw, they'd lock him up forever. Good God, he thought, what was that thing? But he had to shut those thoughts off before he panicked and blew his cover. It was critical that he act normal.
He sat on the tile bench. He was squeezing the handle of his computer bag too hard and his knuckles hurt, so he stopped. His phone beeped; a missed call. Normally he would check right away to see if it was Lydia (even though he knew it would not be), but for now he ignored it.
He realized someone was staring at him: a woman, slightly on the short side, nondescript. No doubt, she was looking at him, and she seemed alarmed. Kenneth's mouth went dry. She must know something was wrong! The mad urge to push this woman right off the side of the platform seized him; yes, kill her before she ratted him out to the others, before she endangered everything! Before he could really think about what he was doing he had stood. His hands were moving. She was right in front of him and the gap was less than a foot away. His heart accelerated…
She spoke: "You saw it too. Didn't you?"
Her voice was small and frightened. Kenneth saw the fear in her eyes. He was her tremble. And then he broke down, sobbing. He couldn't help it; one look in the strange woman's eyes and his resolve crumbled.
The stranger hugged him and he buried his face in her heavy coat until he could get a hold of himself. The panic flowed away, and he could breathe again, although the manic, flapping sense of anxiety would not completely leave him. The woman sat with an arm around his shoulder. People were staring, but it was all right now; the woman waved them on and they paid Kenneth no mind. When his voice came back he said: "I thought I was the only one. I thought everyone else missed it somehow. I thought…I was alone."
The woman shook her head. "I saw it. And when I saw the look on your face I knew you'd seen it too, but that you were the only one. I was so scared. I wanted to talk to you but I was frightened. I thought…I don't know why, but I felt like everyone around me was trying to hurt me, and I just wanted to run away, or hurt them too."
"Yes!" Kenneth said, a bit too loud. "I felt the same way. Such a strange feeling…" He was calmer now, more rational. The woman's voice evened him out. "I think…I think it was because of the eyes. Yes, the eyes are why—"
The woman stopped him. "We shouldn’t talk about this here."
Kenneth blinked. She was right, of course. Without another word he followed her down the escalator, out the fare gates and into the parking lot. It was a gray day. Kenneth realized he was late for work; he must have been sitting on that bench for much longer than he thought. He should call in sick, but for some reason the idea of the phone frightened him just now. Hell, everything frightened him now. So rather than think about anything, he allowed himself to be led.
He followed the nameless woman from the station and past block after block of tepid concrete to the cheap motor lodge on Telegraph where she had a room. She was, she said, in town for business. Kenneth wondered what she did that couldn't afford her better accommodations, but he didn’t ask. He sat in the tiny room's only chair, playing with his tie, not knowing what to say. Outside, voices shouted.
The woman made coffee. The cup was reassuringly hot in his hands, and the black, acrid taste jolted him back to reality a little. The woman sat on the edge of the bed; her hair was tied back in a braid, but a few stray wisps had come loose and floated around her head in a distracting way. She said her name was Kathleen May.
"Kenneth," he said, wincing because the coffee had burned his mouth a bit. "Kenneth Arnold."
"Can I call you Ken?"
"Okay. Kenneth…" She paused and Kenneth could tell she was debating how best to start. "Back on the train—"
"It was dark," Kenneth said, staring into his mug. "It was a huge, black shape. But it was alive. It didn't move, but you could tell it was alive and it was…waiting for something." He licked his lips. "It was beneath—"
"The overpass. The support column."
"That's right!" Kenneth looked up. "Yes, I remember, I was standing near the window, and the train was pulling into the station, and we'd just gone under the freeway overpass. I looked up from my phone and there it was, right outside the window, hanging in midair, staring right at me. It had—"
"Red eyes. Two huge, red eyes."
"Yes! Glowing like stoplights. Those horrible, horrible eyes…"
His voice dwindled and died out as he shuddered. "I couldn't, you know, make out much of it besides the eyes. Except…" He groped for words. "I think it had wings. Yes, wings. Not like a bird, or a bat, but like an insect." He made a little fluttering motion with his hands. "A big, black thing, with wings and glowing red eyes." He looked into his coffee again, and laughed. "It sounds insane."
"It does," Kathleen said. "But I saw it too. Just like you described it."
"So was it real?"
"It has to be."
"What does it mean?"
"I don't know. How could I know that?"
They said nothing for a while. There was more shouting outside. A car door slammed, twice. Kenneth's phone beeped again. He ignored it.
"The part that worries me is…why us?" Kathleen said, breaking the silence. "No one else on the train saw it. I watched everyone who got off and they all looked perfectly normal. Only you and I were afraid. How could anyone not notice a thing like that, right outside the window, even just for a second? Those eyes…" She put her coffee down; she hadn't touched a drop. "I think it means that it wanted us to see it. And only us."
The hairs on the back of Kenneth's neck stood up. "Why?" he said.
"I don't know," Kathleen said. " Do you think it's a sign? Like, an omen? Or a message! Yes, it was something with a message for us."
"If it was a message then why don't we have a clue what it means?"
Kathleen shrugged. "Maybe there's another part of it. Or maybe whatever it was doesn't know the right way to communicate. Or maybe…"
She stood up abruptly and then kneeled down by Kenneth's chair. She laid her head down on his lap. Kenneth was so startled that he froze, mystified. Kathleen closed her eyes.
"I’m sorry," she said. "I just needed…to be held for a second. My head is all out of sorts still. Like I've been drugged. Do you know the feeling?"
"Yes," Kenneth said. He'd felt the same way since the train; it was the eyes of the creature, those glowing red eyes, pulsing like neon signs in the dark. Even just memory made him feel dizzy and drunk. He let Kathleen fall asleep on his lap, watching the sun rise higher in the sky outside, vanishing overhead as it neared and passed noon. He looked into the sun more than he should; it hurt, of course, but that was okay, because when he was looking at it he was finally able to forget about the burning red eyes.
Eventually Kenneth got up, laying Kathleen very gently on the bed. He closed the blinds and got his phone. Though he remembered it ringing earlier, there was no missed call. He called the office; Teena was pissed about him not showing, but he talked her down, working over her sympathies by playing sick. After he hung up he spent a long time staring at the phone. He wanted to call Lydia, but no, he had called her the day before, and left a message, and she had not called him back. There was no point in repeating the ritual today. Still, he wanted to hear her voice…
He jumped when Kathleen put a hand on his shoulder. He hadn't realized she was awake. Her eyes were still red around the edges, but she seemed a little better. She patted his arm again, assuring him. He had to swallow before he could talk. "You okay?" he said.
"Yeah." Her voice was gravelly. "You?"
"I think I'm evening out," he said. "I've never been in shock before. Do you think that's what it was, shock?"
He was quiet for a while. "What do you even do after a thing like this?" he said.
"I don't know," said Kathleen. She hugged him, and he put his arms around her, but all the while he was thinking about Lydia. Then he jumped again when he felt Kathleen's lips, very soft, on the side of his neck. She planted small, wet kisses on him. They tickled a bit. Her hands wandered up his back, clasping him behind the shoulders, pulling him in a little; one of her knees bent and her legs parted. Her mouth traveled up tohis earlobe and then—
"Wait," Kenneth said. He stepped back and she almost lost her balance.
"I'm sorry." Kathleen turned away, blushing.
"No, it's all right," Kenneth said.
"I don't know what that was," she said. "I'm still upset, and you're the only one here, and—"
"It's all right," he said again. "It's not you, it's just…I'm married."
She looked at him out the corner of her eye. "You don't have a ring."
Kenneth shrugged; now he was the one blushing. "We're having some problems. Trial separation. Last time I saw her I noticed she wasn't wearing hers anymore, so I took mine off out of spite. Now I can't remember where I put it."
"You lost your wedding ring?" Her tone was something between amusement and pity. Kenneth shrugged, blushing again.
"Yeah, well, it's been a crazy week," he said. "First that…now this."
Kathleen laughed, a loud, genuine laugh, and seemed to relax for the first time. "Well, look, I'm going to shower, so if you want the chance to slip away and never see me again go right ahead. If you're still here when I get out we should find something to eat and then figure out what we're going to do about, you know, our problem."
He nodded, saying nothing. When the bathroom door closed he waited to hear the sound of the lock. It didn't come. Then came the rush of water. Kenneth sighed and sat on the bed, looking at the window. More voices shouting from outside. He thought, I wonder what—
The phone rang. He'd forgotten he was still holding it. Was it Lydia? No, the number was unlisted. He answered; the voice on the other end was strange, like a machine imitating a voice, but poorly. It was a kind of buzzing, clicking sound that just happened to resemble words:
"Kenneth?" said the voice.
"Yes?" Kenneth said again. His palms started to sweat.
"Isn't it a lovely night or morning?"
"…yes." Kenneth's voice changed, becoming relaxed. His pupils dilated, and his head nodded a little to one side.
"Would you care for a game of solitaire, Kenneth Arnold?"
"Yes," Kenneth said. His voice was a dreamy monotone.
"That's good. But first we want you to do something for us, Kenneth."
"Whatever you want," Kenneth said.
"Just go to Kathleen, Kenneth. Go to her right now. Do you understand?"
"Oh yes," said Kenneth.
"Good." The voice hung up.
Kenneth blinked, looking at his phone. He was sure it had rung a moment ago, but there was not missed call indicator. He shrugged; his fingers shook a little as he put it down. He’d worry about it later.
The shower was still running. The bathroom door was open, just a crack, and steam curled out. He felt funny, half-drunk and half-hungover. He loosened his tie and took off his jacket. It wasn't a warm day, but he was still sweating. Unconsciously, he avoided looking at the window, or at his phone. Instead, without really thinking about it, he went to the bathroom. He loosened his cuff buttons. The small room was dim with steam. He closed the door and it made a loud click; through the haze of the curtain, he saw Kathleen turn. She looked at him; he leaned back against the door. She tugged the curtain open, inviting. Kenneth left his clothes in a pile on the floor.
The hot water stung his neck and shoulders. He took a minute to adjust. There was not much room, so the two of them stood, slightly awkward, a few inches apart, unsure how to begin. Kathleen crossed her arms over her breasts, then uncrossed them.
"You should probably know," she said, "that I’m married too."
Kenneth blinked. "You're not wearing a ring."
"I take it off when I travel."
"Always…" she said. She looked away. Kenneth kissed her. It was strange; he hadn't kissed any woman but Lydia in, what, almost twenty years now? Since high school. He'd expected it to be very different, but no, Kathleen's lips felt more or less the same. With his eyes closed, he could pretend that it was Lydia. Yes, that would work. He closed his eyes and kissed her again, leaning into her. Her wet, naked flesh rubbed against his. She'd just begun to soap herself and she was slippery all over. Her wet hair was just about the same length as Lydia's. As long as Kenneth kept his eyes closed, he could run his hands through her hair and pretend that she was his wife. The steam from the shower filled the tiny bathroom. Kenneth decided to act as if there was nothing past it. The whole world was just a hot, impenetrable cloud surrounding this tiny shower.
She was wet all over. Kenneth ran his hands down her. She felt a little like Lydia, but not really. She had thick legs, but that was all right. He liked good thighs. He sometimes wished Lydia had them. Now, in a way, she did. And her breasts (hot from the steamy water, slippery from the soap) were larger and rounder than Lydia's, another thing he liked (he'd always secretly wished she would get implants, but was too appalled to ever say so). Kathleen's body was almost perfect for him. With his eyes shut, close to her, his hands exploring curves and contours, he imagined he was sculpting the ideal body for his wife. Yes, perfect, or close enough to perfect. Close enough to pretend.
He leaned into her harder; she gave way. The shower was small so she had nowhere to go, her back pressed against the wet tiles. Her mouth opened, kissing him more, her tongue sliding over his. She was slippery and wet and almost impossible to get a hold of but in the close confines she really couldn't get away. It felt like one of those childhood games, where you run and try not to be caught but you know you always will be eventually, and really you want to be. Kenneth buried his face against the side of her neck, biting. She gasped and then exhaled in a long, warbling sigh. She whispered something but he couldn't hear it over the rush of the water. He bit again, and again, and she clung to him tighter, wrapping her arms and legs around him and holding on. She was shaking. He thought she might be crying but of course it was impossible to tell, and he never looked at her face for long anyway.
He thought about Lydia. Their first time had been in a shower too. He was sixteen, she'd been seventeen, and they'd been going steady (that was the term she used, "going steady," like the teenagers in an old movie) for three years. She'd backed out of sex twice already saying she wasn't ready. Her parents were out of town that weekend and he'd snuck into the house to spend the night. She went to shower and he said, joking, "Maybe I'll join you." Then, a minute after the water started, she'd opened the door and said:
"Ken, come in here for a minute. I need you."
Maybe it was the same feeling of isolation that he had now that made her finally agree. The feeling of wet skin on wet skin and hot breath on your bare neck, all hidden from the world by glass, metal, and steam. They'd been awkward, of course, without a clue what they were doing. She was scared of him going in and she buried her face against his bare shoulder (tears disguised by the running water), almost panicked but telling him to do it. Insisting, in fact. She said later that it hurt, but she was glad. If it hadn't hurt, she said, she would have felt let down. Kenneth thought he understood. Until the day twenty years later when she admitted to him that it hurt every time since also.
The feeling of Kathleen's nails raking his back brought him to the present. It felt gratifying, but also troubling: His wife kept her nails short, always. Kenneth was unused to the feeling of the sharp edges scoring lines across his skin. She was positioned against the wall now, legs open, his cock poised just against her, the slippery wet skin of her sex rubbing against his. Panting shook her body, making her shoulders rise and fall. Wet hair clung to the sides of her face, the tips of a few strands touching the corner of her mouth and her full lips. She was telling him to do it. The words rang an echo from twenty years earlier. "Go ahead Kenneth. Go ahead." The exact same words. But those nails biting into his shoulders, those weren't the same. No, that was a feeling he would never have had back then. And now he was seeing entirely too much of Kathleen’s face, in focus that was entirely too sharp. It wasn't going to work. He felt himself stall. He felt—
Without thinking, he spun her around. She cried out in surprise as he pushed her face-first into the wall. She bent at the waist to avoid slipping and he grabbed her by the hips, pulling her into him. Her fingers splayed against the tile (far away from him, far away from where he could feel their distracting touch). And now her face was turned away. Yes, now there was nothing to reveal who she was. Except that his wife would never have let him manhandle her like this. And she certainly would not have encouraged him when the tip of his cock slid, for a second, by accident, against the inside curve of her ass, nudging the tight hole there. Kathleen moaned and stopped him when he started to move. He rubbed against her again. She moaned a little more. Then she reached back and spread her cheeks, inviting him in.
This was a first for Kenneth. It was something he could never, ever have done, normally. But, somehow, that made it all right. That made it better. It made sense that he should have another "first time" with the Lydia who wasn't Lydia. And just like the shape of her body, she was a better Lydia now. The one who suited his needs. At least for right now.
It was tight; he didn’t think it would work. He was afraid to push, afraid that if he forced it he would hurt her, so they spent a few moments awkwardly rubbing against one another. Finally, at her coaxing, he put more pressure on it. He didn't let her gasp discourage him. He pushed harder. It'll be all right if it hurts, he told himself. She'd be let down if it didn't.
The feeling was difficult to describe; rough, but satisfying. It was tight and hot around him. He had a brief, panicky moment, a feeling as if he were somehow being hurt instead of her, but it passed. The thickness of her thighs and ass were inviting compay for his thrusting hips. Their bodies pushed against each other in the tiny stall, as if forced together by the close quarters. He was only halfway in (anything more than that didn't seem possible, although she asked for more) but the traction was so hard that the smallest movement sent shivers up and down him. He throbbed all the way through her.
He felt the wedding ring on his hand. It wasn't there, but he felt it anyway. You can't just stop feeling a thing like that simply because it’s not there anymore. The cold, hard weight of it had been a part of him too long. He imagined she could feel it too, right there, where his hand gripped the flesh of her ass, like a little cold ember against her body. But she didn’t have her ring; he could see her bare finger. Hers was gone, set aside. So she really was like Lydia then. Kenneth buried himself deeper inside of her. He couldn't hear her cries over the rush of the water or the rushing in his ears. It didn't matter. Now she wasn't herself or his wife. Now she was barely there at all, and neither was he. She was something to feel. So he felt.
They were almost embarrassed after. The room had only one towel, so they had to share it. Kathleen kept looking at him and then looking away. He wondered what she was thinking about. He was thinking about nothing. The room was dark. She switched on the lamp and started combing out her wet hair. She told him he could stay the night if he wanted. The words she didn't say were: "I'm scared to be alone."
Kenneth went to the window again. Pitch black outside. They’d been in there a long time. Lucidity was creeping up on him again. When he glanced up his heart seized; there, in the window, in the distance, two glowing red eyes, glaring right through him. Two eyes that saw everything.
He wanted to scream, but his voice was shrunken, vacant, useless, gone. I'm going to die, he thought, as fear seized him again. I can't take this. I'm just going to die.
And then the lights winked out. Kenneth could breathe again, and he realized what he'd really seen: taillights. The lights of a truck down on the freeway, reflected in the glass for just a second. That was all.
"What is it?" Kathleen said.
"Nothing," said Kenneth. He turned his back on the window. The vacant menace of unseen observation hung over him still, but he forced himself to keep his back turned. "Nothing at all."
Kenneth stared at the computer screen; black letters swam over a white background like tiny, wriggling insects. His head hurt, for some reason. Vaguely, he had the impression that the phone had just been ringing, but when he checked it there was no missed call. His little office felt crowded and hot. He frowned. Something was—
Someone knocked on his open door. Teena was there, looking at him with eyebrows raised. He shifted a little in his seat. "What's up, boss?" he said.
"What are you working on?" she said.
Kenneth glanced at his screen. The words there made no sense: "The most effective formula is 25% aluminum and 75% iron oxide. Contrary to popular belief, thermite is not illegal to own or use…"
He shook his head and closed the computer. "Not much," he said.
"Almost time for lunch. Want to grab a bite?"
Kenneth blinked. He couldn’t recall Teena ever taking anyone from the office out. A phantom memory buzzed at the back of his mind, a voice: "Isn’t it a lovely night or morning…" But then it was gone, blotted out, and he came to his senses. He smiled.
"Sure thing," he said.
They said nothing in the elevator, or crossing the street to the café. Overhead, Kenneth heard the screech of the rail brakes as the 2:16 SFO/Millbrae train pulled in. He shuddered a little. He'd been a nervous wreck on the train that morning; after calling in sick two days in a row to avoid the commute he'd finally had to buckle down. He'd sat in his seat, sweating and clawing the upholstery, not wanting to look at that spot under the freeway overpass but not able to take his eyes off it either. Of course, nothing had been there. The operator's mild, bland voice seemed to taunt him as he disembarked: "This is MacArthur station, MacArthur."
He'd seen and heard nothing strange since Monday, nothing except the occasional odd sense of vertigo like back in the office just now. He had not called Kathleen. She was in town through the weekend, he knew. He did not want to let her leave (where was she even from? He'd never thought to ask,) without talking again about what they saw. Kathleen leave was the only person who could confirm his sanity. But anytime he tried to dial her number he stopped, anxious and embarrassed.
He and Teena sat in the café, saying nothing. She'd ordered a sandwich, him a salad that he had no intention of eating. He'd barely eaten all week. Teena was wearing those dangly gold earrings; the first time he'd noticed them was at the Christmas party two years ago. He'd liked the look of them and wondered if he should get a pair for Lydia. Lydia asked him why he'd been staring at Teena all night and when he pointed out the earrings she didn't believe him. They had a fight over it and she'd moved out for a week. Come to think of it, that was when all their troubles really began. Now the earrings were back, and again Kenneth couldn't help but be distracted again by the glittering yellow chains dangling over her brown skin.
"So," she said. "Kenneth. How have you been holding up?"
Kenneth shrugged. "Fine, I guess. I'm sorry I missed a few days."
"It's all right. I wasn't talking about work. I just mean…how are you holding up, you know?" She leaned forward a little, sliding her hands across the table. " I don't mean to pry. I just thought…you know you keep to yourself a lot, Kenneth."
"I hadn't noticed."
"You do. And I know what it's like when there's too much on your mind and no one to talk to. So I wanted you to know that I'm around."
"That's very compassionate of you." Kenneth realized that it sounded like a sarcastic remark, so he flashed a smile. "But I’m fine. It's just a rough patch."
"Okay," Teena said. Her hands inched their way across the table a bit more; one was turned ever so slightly, palm up, seemingly inviting. "But like I said, if you ever need someone, I’d rather you not think of me as just your boss."
"I'm not trying to pressure you," she said. "We're off work here. It's just you and me. Whatever we say here, it never comes back to the office. But don't think that—"
She stopped as the waiter arrived with their food and refreshed their drinks. The afternoon sun glared off the windshields outside. He felt like running away. Teena folded her hands now, pursing her lips, looking at him only out the corner of her eyes, sensing his unease. Kenneth's mind was a jumble: He thought about Lydia, about Kathleen, about his nameless fear, about the rock-solid certainty that was sitting in the pit of his stomach but that he just now recognized, the certainty that his phantom sighting of a few days ago was only the beginning of something and that a new horror, nameless and shapeless, was waiting in the wings, perhaps even now closing in on him. He wanted to tell Teena everything, to blurt it all out in one long, breathless confession. But the words would not come.
She excused herself to the restroom. Kenneth cursed; the confessional urge passed and now he thought only of the ramifications for his job. If Teena felt rejected it would be a disaster, no matter what she said about not pressuring him. He'd have to find some way to let her down gently when she came back. Jesus, if being married doesn't get you out of this situation gracefully what the hell will, he thought? But the glaring absence of his wedding ring made him bite his tongue.
At that moment, someone sat down in Teena's chair. It was a man in a black suit, somewhat rumpled and faded, and he wore an old-fashioned black fedora. He was probably in his seventies, with a hawk nose and large ears. He made Kenneth think of Ebenezer Scrooge. The stranger grabbed a bottle of ketchup off the next table, shook a blob onto Teena's plate, and began helping himself to her fries. Before Kenneth could open his mouth to object, the stranger cut him off:
"Have you ever heard of a man named John Keel?" he said.
Kenneth blinked, too bewildered to reply.
"He was a writer, and a reporter of sorts, back in the 60s and the 70s," said the man in the black suit. "Did a lot of 'investigation' into UFOs and supposed alien encounters, that sort of thing. Ever heard of him?" The man in the black suit gave Kenneth an expectant glance.
"No?" said Kenneth, unable to think of what else to say.
"Hmm," said the man in the black suit. "Keel was the man who gave us the term, 'Men in Black.' Supposedly after people, always Americans, see a UFO or an alien a few days later they'll be visited by strange men dressed in black, driving late-model car and asking a lot of odd questions. You've heard the stories?"
"I guess?" said Kenneth.
"Have you ever seen a UFO, Mr. Arnold, or an alien, or anything else unusual?"
"Do you believe in such things?"
"I have no—"
"What about 'Men in Black', do you believe in those? Have you ever been visited by one? Do you think they exist?" The man in the black suit seemed to be sneering now, although it might just be the natural twist of his lips.
"I have no idea," Kenneth said, finally breaking in. "What do you think?"
"There are no 'Men in Black,'" said the man in the black suit. And he chuckled.
Kenneth's head was spinning. "Well that's fine," he said. "But my da—my friend is sitting there."
"She won't be back for a while yet," said the man in the black suit. "Long enough for us to finish our talk. So this Keel guy, he goes around interviewing so-called witnesses who say they've seen flying saucers and little green men and what have you and eventually he writes a book about it. Now Keel, he had some strange ideas. He said that there are no alien visitors or interstellar aircraft. But the things we call aliens and UFOs are nevertheless quite real. Are you following me?"
"People have only been reporting alien UFOs for the last hundred years," the man in the black suit continued. "But people have always seen lights in the sky and odd creatures after dark. We used to call them demons, or witches, or fairies. In 1692 if you saw lights in the sky you assumed you were looking at a witch flying through the air with a lantern hanging from her broomstick, but if you saw that same light today you'd think it was an alien spaceship. And folks in early America were always being harassed by well-dressed men in black who asked strange questions. Do you know what they thought of those visits? They thought the man in black must be the devil. Isn't that funny?”
The man in the black suit laughed, loud. Kenneth did not.
"Keel said that UFOs and the monsters that come with them are as old as the Earth and have always lived right alongside us. Now and then we see one and we give it the name that we're comfortable with in our time and place."
"That's interesting," said Kenneth, who thought it was nothing of the sort. That strange, closed-off feeling was coming back to him. He was having trouble breathing. He tried to loosen his tie but found he wasn't wearing one.
The man in the black suit smiled; his teeth were very small and very white. "What do you think, Mr. Arnold? Do you believe in aliens, or in witches? Do you believe in the CIA, or in the devil?"
"I don't know," said Kenneth. His voice was hoarse. He felt like his chest was collapsing. I have to get out of here, the thought, have to get away from this old freak!
"I'm going to ask you again, Mr. Arnold: Have you ever seen a UFO? Ever encountered a strange creature? Have you received an unaccountable, harassing phone call, or experienced blackouts and missing time? Do you sleepwalk? Have you ever been visited by Men in Black?"
"No, no, no!" said Kenneth He was sweating, tense, on edge; he tried to stand but his knees locked up.
"Just one more question, Mr. Arnold," said the main the black suit. "If you ever did see anything like that, what would you—"
Kenneth bolted. The other diners turned and stared, but he didn't care. He pushed the door open and the glaring sun hit his eyes and for a second he swooned, but only for a second, and then he was back to being himself again: No more panic, no more suffocation. He almost turned and looked back at the café to see if the man in the black suit was still there, but no, he couldn't do that. Instead he walked toward the curb, forgetting about Teena, forgetting about the man in the black suit, forgetting everything. Just put one foot in front of the other, he told himself.
Everything in his life had been spinning out of control for three days, so now he concentrated just on what he knew he was in control of: himself, walking down the street, one foot in front of the other. The feeling of solid ground beneath his feet reassured him. Everything is all right now, he told himself. Everything is all right. The terror spawned by the old man’s questions was the same feeling he’d gotten from the flying creature’s eyes, but it didn’t linger like it had before. As long as he didn’t think about it, he was fine. One foot in front of the other…
He was almost to the curb when he saw her; she was a petite woman, probably only eighteen or nineteen years old but so small she could be mistaken for much younger. She was dressed for warm weather, all bare legs and shorts and tank top with plunging neck, and her white sneakers looked brand new, so that they all but glowed with reflected sunlight. She was just stepping off the curb and Kenneth could tell right away that she did not see the oncoming van, did not hear the grinding approach of its tires, did not realize she was stepping directly into its path and that the driver would never be able to stop in time. Kenneth's heart stopped and then sputtered to life again in the same second, sending a jolt of adrenaline through him.
"Watch out!" he screamed. Or at least, he tried to; he thought the words, formed them with his mouth, summoned up the breath to project them, but at the last second they died in a grinding whisper, too low for anyone to hear, because at that moment he saw it: the thing. It hung in the branches of a nearby tree, obscured by the shifting of the leaves in the wind, but he saw the glaring, stop-light red glow of its eyes and the movement of its huge, fluttering, nightmare wings. It was there, and it was watching him, and it had been watching him the whole time, and it chose that moment to reveal itself to him again. And when it did, he could no longer speak.
The squeal of the brakes was loud, but Kenneth was barely aware of it. The dull, sickening smack of a body hitting the pavement and the screams of the bystanders sounded far-off as well. Kenneth saw only the pulsing glow of the eyes and heard only the furtive, barely audible whisper of a voice that was not a voice but rather a mechanical or insectoid buzzing and clicking that resembled words. "Kenneth Arnold…" it said…
And then it was gone. The winged thing vanished and the world snapped back into focus. People were screaming, crying, talking animatedly into phones. The driver of the van sat on the curb, face in her hands. One of the girl's brilliant white shoes was on the curb too, and the other stuck out from under the truck, faintly dappled with blood.
Kenneth slumped to the ground. He looked at the empty spot in the trees; yes, empty now, but the thing had been there. He felt it. He knew it. "
Why?" he said. But only the wind in the branches answered him.
"Why would it stop you?" Kathleen said. She sat on the bed, chewing her nails. Kenneth was standing, then pacing, never staying still. The blinds were closed, and outside it was a black night with no moon. It was Friday. He'd called her all day but she never answered and finally he resorted to coming to the motel in person. She said she'd had to throw her phone away because of harassing calls.
"I don't know why," he said. "But I know it did. I was calling out to her, I was warning her, the words were in my mouth, and then it was there…and I just couldn't."
"Maybe you just froze? Maybe you really did warn her but it was already too late? Everything happened so fast, there's no way to know."
"No. No, I know what happened. And I'm sure that old spook in the diner had something to do with it too. Look, why are you fighting me on this? I need for you to believe me. There's no one else in the world who would believe me."
Kathleen sighed. "I know. I'm sorry. I just…I want things to be normal. This whole week has been a nightmare. I want it over. I want to be home."
Kenneth nodded. "Have you seen it again?"
"No. But strange things have been happening. I get these phone calls, but no one is ever there. I even took the battery out of my phone but I still got calls! I have blackouts and dizzy spells. And look at this!"
She threw a book at him. He turned it over. "What is it?"
"It's about structural engineering," she said. "Here's two more like it."
"Kenneth, I never bought these books, I don't know where they came from. But yesterday I found myself lying right here on this bed reading one. I realized I'd been reading it for hours without knowing what I was doing! And there are notes all over it, notes in my handwriting!"
She opened one book and started reading out loud: "'Excessive bending causes a column to collapse. A column with relatively small eccentricities of loading can therefore be expected—'"
"'To support loads only slightly less than a Euler load,'" Kenneth said, finishing for her. She looked up at him. He leaned against the door, astonished; the words had popped right out of his mouth.
"'The maximum load drops sharply—'" Kathleen read.
"'With increasing values of eccentricity. The load-bearing capacity of short columns is thus seen to be very sensitive to variances of loading,'" Kenneth finished, a look of blanched horror on his face. Kathleen put the book down, shaking.
"Kenneth," she said, "have you ever read this book?"
"No," Kenneth said, trying not to swallow his tongue. "I don't know a damn thing about structural engineering or…column eccentricity."
"Neither do I," Kathleen said. "But I know this whole book back to front, word for word."
"Me too," Kenneth said. He put his head in his hands. More words were crowding his mind now, wanting to be spoken of their own accord: Finely powdered thermite can be ignited by a regular flint spark lighter, as the sparks are burning metal. Therefore it is unsafe to strike a lighter close to thermite. A stoichiometric mixture of finely powdered iron(III) oxide and aluminum may be ignited using ordinary red-tipped book matches…
"Kenneth," Kathleen said, "what does it mean?"
"I don't know."
She stood up, coming to him, putting her arms around him. "I'm scared. Please hold me…"
He realized now something was different about her; she had dyed her hair blonde. Now she looked a little more like Lydia. The thought made him edge away; only for a second, but it was long enough. She blinked, hurt.
He stammered an apology, but she moved to the door, fumbling with the knob for a moment in blind anger. She was about to stalk out into the night when she froze, eyes wide with horror, and then she slammed the door, putting her back to it and starting to cry.
"Those eyes—!" she said. "He's here, he's watching us!" She curled up on the floor, crying. Kenneth ran, catching her and then going for the door, as if to open it, but she stopped him. "No! God, no, don't look, it's horrible, don't look!"
"All right," he said. They sat like that, in silence again. Kathleen was suddenly calm; icy, in fact. The transformation alarmed Kenneth.
"Kenneth," she said. "I know what we have to do. We can't leave this room."
"All right?" he said, a question this time.
"We have to keep an eye on each other. We have to be watching one another at all times. It's the only way we'll know if we start doing anything…strange."
Kenneth thought it over. It made sense.
"We'll stay here," he said, "and we'll wait. We'll wait for…I don't know what. I guess we'll just wait. Until we know what else to do."
Kenneth woke up; he was alone. A single lamp lit the room. Kathleen was nowhere in sight. Kenneth stood up, stretching his sore limbs. "Kathleen?" he said. No answer.
He checked his phone; it was Saturday night! Almost 24 hours had passed since he arrived. Where did the time go? He racked his brain to remember anything from the previous day: He remembered arriving on Friday, talking to Kathleen, her brief, horrifying scare, their pact to remain here and together to watch out for one another, and then…nothing.
He tried calling Kathleen but remembered that she'd gotten rid of her phone. He felt tense and tight; Why would she leave? He put the phone on the end table, and that's when he saw it: his wedding ring. It was next to the lamp.
His mouth went dry. He reached for it, expecting it to vanish before his hand got there, but no, his fingers closed tight around the metal. Was it really his? Yes, there was the inscription. He'd lost it before he even met Kathleen, before he saw the creature, before any of this. It had vanished and now reappeared, unaccountably, like a ghost.
He crushed the gold band in his hand and marched to the motel room door, prepared to hurl the ring into the parking lot, to reject the reality of at least one impossible thing. But when the door opened he stopped, stunned, unable to believe what he was seeing. There she stood, right at the top of the stairs, smiling like the Mona Lisa. Impossible, but there she was anyway. And before Kenneth could react, she turned and ran, her white tennis shoes slapping the stairs and then rebounding off the black tar of the parking lot. "Wait!" Kenneth screamed, and without a thought he chased after her, leaving the door wide open behind him.
He ran, terrified of losing sight of her in the dark, desperate to keep her in his field of vision. Because it was not Kathleen he saw now, or even Lydia; it was the girl from the street on Thursday, the dead girl, run down in broad daylight but now, suddenly, miraculously alive, alive and leading him on a chase down dark streets and through strange alleyways, a chase across an open lot filled with gravel and broken glass, a chase after a dream or an illusion or a madness that he was unwilling to abandon.
The girl was fast and she never seemed to tire, but he was in sound shape and a regular runner until recently. He lagged a bit but never really slowed, and never stopped until she did. She'd reached a chain link fence, and beyond it bare strip of land leading to the black, cold waters of the bay; there was nowhere to go. She turned and smiled at him again. She didn't seem to be out of breath or perspiring at all. Kenneth was winded; he tried to speak but the effort was too much.
"Hello," she said, after a time.
"Who are you?" Kenneth said, panting.
"Don't you recognize me?"
"I do. I think. Aren't you…no…?"
Something had changed. Maybe it was the effect of the darkness or the distant glare of the lights on the bay water, or maybe it was nothing but Kenneth's fevered mind, but now she almost looked like—
She stepped forward, smiling still, and now he could see her plainly: her round face, her almond eyes, the bleached streaks in her hair. She was even wearing her wedding ring again. She waved a little.
"What—what are you doing here?"
"I came to see you."
"But how did you—? And I haven't heard from you in—in…"
His head throbbed; something was wrong. Images swam in front of his eyes. He felt hot, like he was staring into an oven.
"No," he said, licking his dry lips. "No, this isn't right. Who are you?"
Her smile flickered for a moment. "Ken, it's me. It's Lydia."
"No. Who are you?"
"Who are you?"
And then she disappeared, winking out like an extinguished light. But Kenneth felt a draft on his back, and a fluttering sound. He turned and there it was, with its wings and two great, burning eyes, eyes that bathed Kenneth in red light, making him cover his face and bury his head against the ground. There was a voice like a million buzzing insects:
"Hello, Kenneth Arnold."
"Go away," Kenneth said, tears burning his eyes. "Get away from me."
"Hello, Kenneth Arnold," the voice said again.
"I said get away from me!"
The winged thing fluttered closer; the impossible, shadowy depths of its body seemed ready to swallow Kenneth up.
"Isn't it a lovely night or morning?"
"Leave me alone. Just leave me alone…"
"Would you care for a game of solitaire, Kenneth Arnold?"
"That's good. But first we want you to do something for us, Kenneth."
"…whatever you want," Kenneth said.
"That's good, Kenneth Arnold. That's very good."
"Fuck yes." Those were the words that brought Kenneth back to consciousness. His words, he realized. A response to a question, one that still lingered just on the edge of his memory. Whatever it was, he'd answered, and now he felt the tug of fingers at his belt. No, wait, he wasn't wearing a belt; in fact, he wasn’t wearing anything at all except his boxers, which those tugging fingers were now pulling away from him as well. He was in a house he didn't know (white carpet, white upholstery, white walls and ceiling and huge, billowing white curtains over the huge windows with glistening sunlight streaming through from a clear blue afternoon sky outside). He could not remember how he got here. He could not remember anything.
A woman (also unclothed except for a bra and panties that consisted of very little material) knelt in front of him, sliding her hands into his waistline, pulling it down and then stroking his cock with one soft palm. He was so hard it hurt; he'd never felt this much urgency. He was pent-up. The woman (whoever she was) opened her mouth and slid him all the way in and all the way back, all in one go. Kenneth was stunned for a second but before he could react she looped her arms around his legs and pulled him in more. There was a muffled "Mmmm…" and the feeling of a wet tongue dancing along him.
His body went rigid and hot. He tried to put his hand on the back of the woman's head but she batted it away. Then she actually pushed him, popping him out of her mouth long enough to shove him against the wall (still on her knees; she was strong and Kenneth's breath went away for a second) and then, once she had him properly pinned, she sucked the head of his cock back into her mouth. Her lips were soft. Again that muffled "Mmmm…" Kenneth felt dazed. Okay, he told himself. It's okay. Nothing to worry about. Just go with it.
So he did. He enjoyed the hot sucking sensation of the woman's perfect mouth and the firmness of her body rubbing up and down against his legs. She'd discarded her bra and her bare breasts pressed against his thighs. Her movements were so smooth and her limbs so strong that everything she did looked was like a glide, including the sensation of his cock sliding in and out of her throat, his shaft wet with spit and dribbling onto the cushion of her tongue. Don’t think about it. Don’t think about anything. Just go along.
Something caught his eye; a gleam. A gold earring, dangling from the woman's earlobe, the color stark against her dark skin. They were just like the ones that—
"Holy shit, Teena?"
The world snapped into focus. Teena stood up and looked him in the eye. "You like to say my name?" she said, pinning him up against the wall again. Her naked thighs rubbed his legs. She smiled, kissing him. "Go on, say my name again."
"That's good. That's real good."
She lifted one leg so that he thigh pressed against his hip, rubbing herself up and down on him. Her smile twitched less than an inch away from his lips, and she punctuated each of her words with a tiny, fleeting kiss.
"I like the way you say my name Kenneth. Always have. You sound like a little boy asking his teacher for permission. So what are you asking now?"
"That's good," she said again. She grabbed his hands and placed them on her ass. It was smooth and taut against his palms. Kenneth was suddenly having trouble concentrating again.
"Go on Kenneth. Give it a little smack." She wiggled her ass in his hands. "Come on. I'm asking you to. Or do you want me to order you to?" She grabbed his face in one hand, pushing his head against the wall. "Is that how you like to do it?? We can do it like that."
She stood up taller and pushed her naked breasts against his face. Her hard, dark nipples rubbed against his lips.
"Do you want me to push you around? Do you want me to make you say, 'Yes Ma'am?’"
"On second thought, don’t talk." She clapped a hand over his mouth. "Talking is overrated. Who wants a man to talk all the time when he's got more important things to do, right?" She winked. Then she pushed him down to his knees. Her crotch waved in front of his face. She smelled hot and wet. She teased the black lace panties down a fraction of an inch, showing off the smoothly curved lines of her hips.
"Well don't just sit there Kenneth, I think you know what to do." She laced her fingers through his hair. "I think you know opportunities like this don’t come along every day." She pushed his face into her, burying him between her thighs. The sensation of smothering only lasted for a second. The feeling of lace fabric and, just behind it, hot flesh, against his mouth was disorienting. She tugged the panties aside; Kenneth’s lips were less than an inch away from.
“Well? Are you just going to stare at it, or are you going to eat it?”
She pushed his head in; the warm taste filled his mouth. Teena’s fingers curled through his hair. She was wet all the way through. His tongue flickered over her. She leaned a little, pushing her hips forward, grinding against his face.
“Now don’t be shy,” she said. “You do a good job you’ll get a mark for it on your next review.” She patted his head. “Just kidding. Maybe. Now lick it already.”
He slid his tongue up and then down, over the whole length of it. When she didn’t seem to respond to that he concentrated just on the top, flickering again, and that drew another moan, so he did it again. Opening his mouth wider he sucked against her, drawing her between his lips and teeth and then flicking his tongue against her again and again. The muscles on her thighs rippled; she must be incredibly strong, he thought. She could probably crush me down here if she wanted to. The thought made him go faster.
“Oh…fuck yes!” she said. “Oh, fuck, that’s right. Be a good boy now, Kenneth. Be good and…Kenneth, are you all right?"
"I feel strange," Kenneth said, trying to stand. His legs wobbled. He half sat and half collapsed onto a couch. It took a great deal of effort not to hyperventilate. Teena draped herself over him, muttering concern.
"Jesus, I'm sorry," she said. "I guess I got carried away."
"No, you were fine. I mean, you were great. I mean, it's not that at all."
"Maybe you're dehydrated," she said. "You've been working hard all day."
"I have? Um…how long have I been here now?"
"It's…" She craned her neck to see the clock. "Christ, twelve thirty! I didn't even realize." She laughed, kissing him again. "Let me get you some water," she said, padding barefoot to the kitchen. Kenneth watched her walk away. He couldn’t help it.
Twelve thirty. It was twelve thirty, Sunday afternoon. He was pretty sure it was Sunday, although he did not remember Saturday ever ending. He did not remember coming to Teena's place. He certainly did not remember…whatever else they did. But at least he was pretty sure what day it was now. To verify, he turned on the TV and flipped to the news. Something about his hands on the remote control button bothered him. He looked at his hands as if they were a part of someone else. A troubled thought tickled the back of his mind but he couldn't place it. Something was wrong? What was wrong…?
The voice on the television finally penetrated his haze: "…on the scene as the remains of the I-580 freeway connector still smolder behind us. A tanker truck hauling over 8,000 gallons of unleaded gasoline overturned here this morning, reducing a section of the interchange to rubble. There is still no sure indication of the initial—"
Kenneth froze in place. The orange light of the fires flickered over and over on the television screen. Certain words stood out in his mind like flashing neon signs: "Tanker," "gasoline," "rubble," "freeway." It was the MacArthur freeway, the one he'd seen the creature perched under six days ago.
He muttered the words to himself again and again, waiting for them to make sense. Something was still bothering him, an itch at the back of his mind that he just couldn't scratch.
What was it, what was it? What was the—
He was looking at his hands again. They were clean. Very, very clean. Cautiously, not yet sure why, he sniffed his fingertips; the smell of scented soap hit him full in the nostrils. Dish soap too. He'd given his hands a good scrubbing recently. Probably twice. But just around the edges of his nails, all the soap in the world couldn't quite cover the noxious odor of…
Kenneth was dressed and out the door like a shot. He blew right past Teena, leaving her to squawk in surprise. She called after him but he ignored her. He got into his car and sped the whole way, pushing the accelerator to 90 in open spaces where he thought he could get away with it. He had to go around the freeway, of course, and he couldn't escape the traffic; he seethed bumper-to-bumper, feeling he too would explode at any moment. Finally—finally—he sighted the motor lodge and pulled in. He bounded up the steps and pounded on Kathleen's door. She opened it and he barged in without waiting for her to say anything. She was in the midst of packing. Kenneth turned on the TV, flipped it to the news, where a replay of the freeway report was running.
"Do you see? Do you see?"
Kathleen closed the door, bewildered. "The accident? I saw. What does—?”
"Not an accident, not an accident!" Kenneth was almost rambling. He forced himself to take deep breaths.
"What do you mean?"
"I did it. I blew up the freeway. I know I did."
Kathleen took a half step back. "What are you talking about? You couldn't—"
"I don't remember doing it, but I did it. It all makes sense: I remember reading about homemade explosives. I remember those engineering manuals. I remember making a phone call to the shipping company posing as a transit board employee asking about their routes. And I remember how many things I don't remember, all the blackouts, all the missing time, what do you think I was doing during all that time? I was planning this!"
He crossed the room in two quick strides and took Kathleen's hand. "Don't you get it? We wanted to know why us? This is why. This is what it wanted us to do. It made me do it, it got into my head and it made me! And then it tried to make me forget. And it almost worked!
"You believe me, don't you? Don't you…?"
She put her arms around him and cradled his head on her shoulder. "Shhh," she said. "It's all right. It's all right."
Kenneth felt his stomach turn over. "How many…how many people did I kill?"
“Kenneth, you didn't kill anyone."
"Yes, I did, it was me. Just tell me how many."
"No, Kenneth, didn't you listen to the whole report? No one died."
Kenneth was sure he hadn't heard right. "That's…impossible?"
"It's true. Even the driver of the truck survived. Here, I'll show you."
She pulled up the story on her phone. Kenneth read it twice. She was right: No casualties reported. A miracle.
"Oh, thank Christ," he said, sagging onto the bed. Then he looked up: "But…what else have I done?"
"I don't remember. There's so much I don't remember. What if there are other things? What if there are more people? What if…” he paused. “What about you? You disappeared last night. Where did you go? What have we--?”
"Kenneth, listen to me!" She kneeled in front of him, looking him in the eye. "I…wait, here, this will help you." She took out a phone. Kenneth watched her, puzzled. She dialed a single digit and spoke into the receiver. Then she handed it to him.
"It's for you," she said. Kenneth took the phone, baffled.
"Hello?" he said.
"Hello, Kenneth Arnold," the voice on the other end whirred. "Are you listening?"
"I…yes. Yes. I'm listening."
“Isn’t it a lovely night or morning?”
Tears glistened in Kathleen's eyes. "I'm sorry, Kenneth," she mouthed. Kenneth stared at her, stunned, delirious.
"Would you care for a game of solitaire, Kenneth Arnold?" said the voice.
"That's good. But first we want you to do something for us, Kenneth."
Kathleen took the phone away from him. She ran a finger down the side of his cheek.
"Just forget, Kenneth Arnold," she said. "Just forget everything."
The man in the black suit read the newspaper. Kathleen sat on the other side of the booth, waiting. The man in the black suit had not said anything yet, had not even looked at her. Only once he finished the paper (having read every line of every article, start to finish) did he set it down and take notice, seemingly for the first time, of his food and of Kathleen. He ate in silence for a time. Kathleen stirred her coffee; she'd added nothing to it, merely stirred it, watching it swirl around, black, in her cup.
"Well," said the main the black suit, "how do you feel about it all?"
Kathleen had no idea what the question even meant. "I feel…fine? I suppose."
"Hmm. The first field assignment is usually the hardest. You'll have less trouble with the next."
"I didn't have—"
"How is Kenneth?"
"He's…fine. Back home."
"Hmm. Any latent memories?"
"I don't think so."
"Good. So are you going to ask me why? Why this freeway, why this man, what's the point of it all?"
"That's good. You have a question about the Executor then? It's usually one or the other. Or are you the third type?"
He cut her off: "Hold that thought. Have you ever heard of a man named John Keel?"
Kathleen blinked. "No?"
"When I was young and new to the agency, in fact when I'd only recently received my very first field assignment, like you just did, we had an…incident."
"We lost contact with the Executor. It went rogue, you could say. Rather than following protocol it revealed itself to unrelated people, dozens of them. Caused a tremendous scare, as you can imagine. Even made it into the papers. They called it 'the Mothman.'"
The man the black suit laughed in a way that indicated he did not in the least find this funny.
"But why would the Executor do that? I didn't think it even could—
"We don't know why. We just know it created a huge headache for us. And it attracted the attention of John Keel. He was a writer from New York; he came down to West Virginia, where we were working, and started asking questions, even started writing a book about it. I had to clean it all up.
"And we did clean it up, eventually. The Executor went back to its normal protocols and the job went off as planned: A bridge collapse; nothing special, or at least, nothing that was supposed to be special. And that left Keel as our last loose end."
"What did you do?"
"Suppressed his book, and his article. Wrote him a new one. Convinced him that suicide was the best way out. We couldn’t tamper with his memories, you see, because we still weren’t sure if the Executor was back on protocols, so suicide was Plan B. But Keel didn't kill himself like he was supposed to. And he didn't trash his book, like we wanted him to do. The bastard finished it in secret, and published it. It was the biggest breach of security we've ever had. We're still trying to undo the damage."
"Jesus," Kathleen said. She still hadn't touched the coffee.
"The truth is, I went easy on Keel. I went easy on him because I liked him. My point is this: You're young, and this was your first big job. It's normal to have a few reservations. But don't let them get to you. Don't let Kenneth Arnold become your John Keel. Understand?"
Kathleen's pulse quickened a little. She nodded.
"Good," said the man in the black suit. "You know where you're going next? The dossier is in your car. Your name is Elizabeth Underhill. Get used to it."
Kathleen (Elizabeth) readied herself to go. Before walking away from the table, she turned back.
"Sir…the Executor doesn't really work for us, does it?" Her voice went up an octave and cracked. "We work for it. Don't we?"
"It's been a big day already, Elizabeth," said the man in the black suit. "Maybe these sorts of questions should wait until you're more…situated."
He began reading his paper again, from the beginning. Elizabeth walked away. Outside the diner, something else left too. Only the man in the black suit remained. But soon, he vanished also. As if he'd never been there at all.
In November 1966, four teenagers from the town of Point Pleasant, West Virginia, reported a strange apparition, a flying man with wings and red eyes. Newspapers dubbed this figure "the Mothman."
For the next 13 months, dozens of Point Pleasant residents reported encountering the Mothman, as well as an oddball list of UFOs, men in black, and other, less identifiable phenomena.
In December 1967, a bridge collapse in Point Pleasant killed 46 people. In its wake, the Mothman sightings ceased. Conspiracy theorists have long tried to link the creature to the disaster.
In 1975, writer John Keel published "The Mothman Prophecies," detailing his investigations in Point Pleasant. The book codified the UFO phenomenon for the American public.
In April 2007, a gas tanker overturned on the I-580 freeway. Amazingly, no one died in the resulting fire and bridge collapse.
There have been no substantial Mothman sightings in over forty-five years. Attempts to link the Mothman to disasters and incidents outside of Point Pleasant are purely speculative.