-Damon Knight. Often misattributed to Charles Fort.
December, 1967. West Virginia:
The knock came at midnight. Klein answered; it was the man in the black suit. He came into the motel room, closed the door, and handed Klein a stack of papers.
“You’ll be happy to know that you’ve finished your report,” he said. “Here it is.”
Klein riffled through the pages. “What did I conclude?” he said.
“You’ve determined that the initial sightings of the creature the local papers 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 sightings of the same unusual but perfectly harmless and terrestrial bird.”
Klein sat in the room’s only chair, reading the report over. He was bleary-eyed and unshaven. The room stank of liquor. “And the UFO sightings?” 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 smiled. “Or so you've decided.”
Klein grunted. The man in the black suit handed him another sheet of paper. “We just need you to sign here,” he said. Klein signed, though his hand was shaking and he made a mess of it. The paper was dated December 14th—two days from today. The man in the black suit took the document away, snapped it in his briefcase, and said, “There, done. Do you feel better?”
“No,” said Klein. The man in the black suit acted as if he did not hear.
“I believe you have something for me?” he said.
Klein 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. “It’s fine work. Almost too bad no one will ever get to read it,” he said when he was done. 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?” Klein 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."
The man in the black suit turned to go, taking the box with him. Klein stopped him at the door. “Wait,” he said. “How long until I can…”
“Kill yourself?” said the man in the black suit. He pondered. “We’d prefer you wait at least a year. Any sooner than that might damage the credibility of the report. But if it gets to the point where you really can’t take it anymore…six months is probably acceptable. There will be no reprisals against your loved ones after that point.”
Klein sagged, relieved. Then he seemed to struggle with something more. The man in the black suit nodded, almost a kind gesture. “Something’s going to happen tomorrow, isn’t it?” Klein said. "Something terrible, in the town."
“Terrible things do happen, sometimes,” said the man in the black suit. “If you really want to know the truth, just look outside. No, not there; the window.”
Klein touched the curtain, cautiously at first, then pulled it aside. He stood, transfixed, as 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. Klein looked dazed.
“You understand now?” said the man in the black suit. Klein said nothing; there was nothing to say. The man in the black suit left. Klein 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. Just play it cool. "This he said to himself over and over again as the train's brakes squealed and the doors snapped open.
"This stop is MacArthur," the operator said.
Kenneth stepped onto the elevated platform, knees shaking, but he was careful not to give himself away. No one else had seen the thing on the pillar, and that meant everyone else on this train platform was Kenneth's enemy. If he breathed one word of what he saw, they'd cart him to the loony bin. Can't let that happen, he thought.
He sat on the cement bench. He was squeezing the handle of his briefcase 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 now he ignored it. Good God, he thought, what was that thing? But he had to shut those thoughts off before he panicked and gave himself away.
He realized someone was staring at him: It was a woman, slightly on the short side, nondescript, but watching him with a mildly puzzled, disgusted look on her face. Kenneth's mouth went dry. The way she was looking at him…she must know something is wrong! His heart rate accelerated. He was seized with the urge to push this woman right off the side of the platform. Yes, kill her before she endangered everything! Before he could really think about what he was doing his hands were moving, but he stopped once she spoke:
"You saw it too. Didn't you?"
Her voice was small. Kenneth saw fear in her eyes. 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 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 we were the only ones. 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 out to get me."
"Yes!" Kenneth said, a bit too loud. "I felt the same way. Such a strange feeling…" He was more rational now. The woman's voice evened him out. "I think…I think it was because of its eyes. Yes, the eyes—"
The woman stopped him. "We shouldn’t talk about this here."
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. Rather than think about anything, he allowed himself to be led.
The woman took him beneath the overpass, past block after block of tepid concrete to the cheap motor lodge on Telegraph where she had a room. She was in town for business,m she said. Kenneth wondered what she did that couldn't afford her better accommodations, but he didn’t ask. He sat in the 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 more. She sat on the edge of the bed, leaning forwad. 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 pursed her lips, obviously trying to work out what she should say. She said her name was Kathleen May.
"Kenneth Arnold," he said, wincing because the coffee had burned his mouth a bit.
"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 black," Kenneth said, staring into his mug. "It was a huge, black shape, hanging underneath the freeway overpass and clinging to the pillar. 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. "I was standing near the window, and the train was pulling into the station, and we'd just gone under the freeway overpass, and I looked up from my phone and there it was, hanging in midair. And it had—"
"Two huge eyes."
"Like stoplights. Those horrible eyes…" His voice dwindled and died out as he shuddered. It was a moment before he could speak again. "I couldn't, you know, make out much of it besides the eyes. Except…" He groped for words. "It had 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. It sounds insane."
"But I saw it too. Just like you described it. It has to be real if we both saw it."
"What does it mean?"
"I don't know. The part that worries me is: why us? Only we saw it. I think it means that it wanted us to see it. And only us. Do you think it's a sign? Like, an omen? Or a message!"
"If it was a message then why don't we have a clue what it means?"
Kathleen shrugged. "Maybe there's some other 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 didn't even react, just froze in place, 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. Kathleen, he saw, was on the verge of passing out, her eyes swollen and red, and he suddenly did not want to disturb her. Instead he let her fall asleep on his lap, watching the sun rise higher and higher in the sky outside, vanishing overhead as it neared and passed noon. He looked at 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 of the creature from the train.
Eventually Kenneth got up, laying Kathleen on the bed. He closed the blinds and got his phone. Though he remembered it ringing earlier, there was no missed call message. He called the office; Teena was pissed about him not showing, but he talked her down, played sick, worked over her sympathies. When 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."
"Me neither." He gave her a hug, but all the while he was thinking about Lydia. Then he jumped again when he felt Kathleen's lips, very softly, on the side of his neck. She planting, small, wet kisses there that tickled a bit. Her body tensed up in his arms. 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, just a little. Her mouth wandered up to beneath his earlobe and then—
"Wait," Kenneth said. He stepped back. He moved so fast she almost lost her balance and was left looking surprised, balanced on one foot. Kenneth ran his fingers through his hair, sighing. "Wait," he said.
"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. He put a hand on her shoulder. "It's not, you know, 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. "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 why don't we find something to eat and then figure out what we're going to do about, you know, our problem."
He watched her as she went into the bathroom and closed the door. He waited to hear the sound of the lock, but it didn't come. Then there 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 ringing phone startled him. He'd forgotten he was still holding it. Was it Lydia? No, no number was listed. He answered; the voice on the other end sounded 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, for some reason.
"Isn't it a lovely night, Kenneth Arnold?"
"…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."
"Whatever you want," Kenneth said.
"Go to Kathleen. Right now."
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 trembled a little as he put it down. The shower was still running. The bathroom door was open, just a crack, and shower steam curled out. Kenneth felt funny, half-drunk and half-hung over. He loosened his tie and took off his jacket. It wasn't a warm day, but he was still sweating. He closed the door behind him with a loud click Through the haze of the curtain, he saw Kathleen turn. 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 and 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. Kenneth kissed her. It was strange; he hadn't kissed any woman but Lydia in, what, almost 20 years now? Since high school. He'd expected it to be very different, but Kathleen's lips felt more or less the same. With his eyes closed, he could pretend that it was Lydia. Yes, that would work. 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. Gauzy steam filled the tiny bathroom. Kenneth decided to act as if there was nothing beyond it. The whole world was just a hot, impenetrable cloud surrounding this tiny vestibule.
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 Lydia would get implants, but was too appalled to ever say so). Kathleen's body was almost perfect for him. With his eyes shut and his hands exploring her curves and contours, he imagined he was sculpting the ideal body.
They had so little room that it was impossible to do anything without touching. 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. 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. They'd been going steady (that was the term she used, "going steady," like the teenagers in an old movie) for a year at that point. She'd backed out of sex twice, already saying she wasn't ready. Graduation came and went and still she didn’t relent. 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 sense 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 buried her face against his bare shoulder, 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 20 years later when she admitted she’d never stopped hurting.
Kathleen's nails raked his back and brought him to the present. He was unused to long nails. 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. 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 20 years earlier. "Go ahead Kenneth. Go ahead." The exact same words. But those nails biting into his shoulders, those weren't the same. 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 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.
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 rough, but satisfying. 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 company for his thrusting hips. 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 resulted in shivers. 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. 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. 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 so was he.
They were almost embarrassed after. The room had only one towel, so they had to share. 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 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 looking at him with eyebrows raised. He shifted a little in his seat. "What's up, boss?" he said.
"What are you working on?"
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…"
"Not much," he said.
"Almost time for lunch. Want to grab a bite?"
Kenneth blinked. He could never recall Teena taking anyone from the office out. He hesitated for a second. A phantom memory buzzed at the back of his mind, a voice: "Would you like a game of solitaire…" But then it was gone. "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 at 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, blind voice seemed to taunt him as he disembarked: "This is MacArthur station." He'd seen and heard nothing strange since Monday, except the occasional odd sense of vertigo like back in the office just now.
Lydia remained unreachable; he had not called Kathleen either. 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 happened. Kathleen leave was the only person who could confirm his sanity. But anytime he tried to dial her number he found himself calling Lydia instead.
At the cafe, Teena 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 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 dark skin.
"So," she said, startling him out of his reverie. "How have you been holding up?"
Kenneth shrugged. "Fine. I'm sorry I missed a few days."
"I wasn't talking about work." She leaned forward a little, sliding her hands across the table. "The whole Lydia thing. I don't mean to pry. I just thought…you keep to yourself a lot."
"I hadn't noticed."
"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." Kenneth realized 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. "I'd rather you not think of me as just your boss. I've always kept an eye on you. Just in case, if that doesn't sound completely awful to say."
"I'm not trying to pressure you," she said. "It's just you and me here. Whatever we say, it never comes back to the office. But think about it, all right? You've got my number. I'm a phone call away. Day or night."
She stopped as the waiter arrived with their food and refreshed their drinks. The afternoon sun glared off the windshields outside, blinding Kenneth for a moment. 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 wanted to tell Teena everything that had happened, 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 by his silence (which he guessed technically she should) 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 dressed in a black suit (neat but somewhat faded) and an old-fashioned black fedora. He was an old man, probably in his seventies, with a hawk nose and large ears. Kenneth couldn't help but 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 Klein?" 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 alien encounters, that sort of thing."
"Never heard of him," said Kenneth, unable to think of what else to say.
"But I bet you know his work anyway," said the man in the black suit. "Klein was the man who gave us the term, 'Men in Black.' You know what that means, right? Supposedly after people--always Americans--see UFOs or aliens, a few days later they'll be visited again by strange people dressed in black, driving late-model cars, and acting intimidating. You've heard of the phenomena?"
"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?" 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 Klein 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 Klein, 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 went on. "But people have always seen strange creatures and lights in the sky. 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 was the devil. Isn't that funny?
"So according to Klein, UFOs and the monsters who 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.
"What do you think, Mr. Arnold? Do you believe in aliens, or in demons? Do you believe in the CIA, or in the devil?"
"I don't know," said Kenneth. His voice was hoarse, and he could barely sit up. He felt like his chest was collapsing. He had to get out of here, had 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 ever been visited by Men in Black? Because if you had, I'd be very careful who you told about it, hypothetically speaking. Your wife, for example, probably shouldn't know. I understand you two are going through a rough patch and a shock like this wouldn't be good for her. You can see that."
Kenneth had to get out of there.
"Just one more question," 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, because then he was back to being himself again: no more panic, no more suffocation. He stopped shaking. 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 right now, 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.
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 even 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. She was just stepping off the curb and Kenneth could tell right away that she did not see the oncoming car, 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, then started again, 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 instant they died in a whisper too soft for anyone to hear, because at that moment he saw it: the thing. It hung in the branches of a nearby tree like a monstrous bat, obscured by the shifting of the leaves in the wind. He saw the glaring, stop-light glow of its eyes and the movement of its huge, fluttering, nightmare wings. 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 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 Anderton 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, attached to a firm, tanned leg, its calf only 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 motel bed, chewing her nails. Kenneth was standing, then pacing, never wanting to stay 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. 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. He scared me into going out there at just the right second and that thing stopped me from intervening. They wanted to be sure I saw it happen. 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 slumped a little. "I'm sorry. I just want things to be normal."
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. 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 without him realizing it.
"'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 spreading across 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,' whatever the hell that is."
"Neither do I," Kathleen said. "But I know this whole book back to front, word for word."
"So do I," Kenneth said. More words crowded his mind now, wanting to be spoken: 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…
"What does it mean?" Kathleen.
"I don't know." He was exhausted from saying those words so much.
She stood up, coming to him, putting her arms around him. ""I'm scare," she said. "Please hold me…"
He realized now something was different about her; she had dyed her hair blonde. Now she looked a little like Lydia. The thought made him edge away. Only for a second, but it was long enough. He stammered an apology, but she went to the door, fumbling with the knob for a moment in blind anger. She was about to stalk out into the night when suddenly 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 in a ball on the floor, crying. Kenneth ran, catching her, then looked at 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, then nodded. It did make sense.
"We'll stay here," she said, "and we'll wait. We'll wait for…" She paused biting her lip. "I don't know what. I guess we'll just wait. Until we know what else to do."
"Sounds good," Kenneth said. And at that moment, it really did.
Kenneth woke up alone. A single lamp was on. The bathroom door was open, the room dark beyond that. Kenneth stood up, stretching his sore limbs. "Kathleen?" he said. No answer.
He checked his phone; it was Saturday night! Almost 24 hours since he arrived. Where had the time gone? He racked his brain to remember anything from the previous day, but there was nothing. 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.
"Kathleen?" he said again, but of course she wasn't there. He tried dialing her number but remembered that she'd gotten rid of her phone. Where was she? Why would she leave? His fingers were slippery with sweat as he thumbed a phone number: Lydia. He had to hear her voice, needed it to reassure him. He listened to the tinned ring over and over again. "Come on, pick up, pick up!" But she didn’t. No voicemail either.
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 his fingers closed tight around the metal, solid and real. The weight of it in the center of his palm seemed extraordinary. How could it be? He'd lost it before he even met Kathleen, before he saw the creature, before any of this. But here it was.
He crushed the gold band in his hand and marched to the motel room door, prepared to hurl the ring over the stair railing and into the parking lot, to reject the reality of at least one impossible thing. But when the door was open he stopped, stunned, appalled, unable to believe what he was seeing. There she stood, right at the top of the stairs, smiling like the Mona Lisa. 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 her, leaving the motel room door swinging 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 and leading him on a chase down dark streets and 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 tired. They came to a chain link fence, and beyond it bare strip of land leading to the black, cold waters of the lake. 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 of it forced him to his knees. The girl just smiled.
"Hello," she said, after a time.
"Who are you?" Kenneth said, still on his knees, his voice still raw.
"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. "Hi baby."
"What—what are you doing here?"
"I came to see you."
"But how did you—? And I haven't heard from you in—in…" Something was wrong. Images swam in front of his eyes. He felt hot, like he was staring into an oven. "This isn't right. Who are you?"
Her smile flickered for a moment. "Ken, it's me."
"No it's not."
"Who are you?"
And then she disappeared, winking out like an extinguished light. But Kenneth felt a draft on his back, like the fluttering of wings. He turned, and there was the black shape, with its wings and burning eyes. Kenneth covered 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."
The winged thing fluttered closer; the impossible, shadowy depths of its body seemed ready to swallow Kenneth up.
"Isn't it a lovely night, Kenneth Arnold?"
"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."
"Yes," Kenneth muttered, slurring his words. He felt peaceful now, passive, all of a sudden. "Yes, I'm ready."
"That's good. That's very good."
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. 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.
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 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 and, with him properly pinned, she sucked the head of his cock back into her mouth. 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 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 was like a glide. His shaft was 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 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. "Go on, say my name again."
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?"
She grabbed his hands and placed them on her ass. It was smooth and taut. Kenneth was suddenly having trouble concentrating again.
"Go on. Give it a little smack." She wiggled her ass in his hands. "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 his lips. "Do you like being pushed 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. " Who wants a man to talk all the time?" 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. "Don't just sit there Kenneth. You know what to do."
She laced her fingers through his hair.
"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. In a few seconds, a warm taste filled his mouth. She was wet all the way through. His tongue flickered over her
“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, two 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.
Two thirty. It was two 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. 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 I80 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. 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 was looking at his hands again. They were clean. Very, very clean. Cautiously, not yet sure why, he raised one and 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 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 to Oakland, 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—"
"I did it. I blew up the tanker truck."
Kathleen took a half step back. "What are you talking about?"
"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 got into my head and it made me! And then it tried to make me forget. And it almost worked!" He stopped. "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 people did I kill?"
"Just tell me. How many was it?"
"Kenneth, you didn't kill anyone."
"Yes, I did. It was me."
"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. Not even any serious injuries. A miracle.
"Oh, thank Christ," he said, sagging onto the bed. Then he looked up: "But…what else have I done?"
"There's so much I don't remember. What if there are other things? What if there are more people? What if—?!"
"Kenneth, listen to me! I…wait, here, this will help you." She took out a phone. Kenneth watched her, puzzled. She dialed a single number 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 Anderton Arnold," the voice on the other end whirred. "Are you listening?"
"I…yes. Yes. I'm listening."
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.
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 even looked at her. Only once he finished the paper (having read every line of every article, front to back) did he set it down and take notice, seemingly for the first time, of his food and of Kathleen. "Well," he said, "how do you feel about it all?"
Kathleen had no idea what the question even meant. "Fine," she said.
"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."
"Any latent memories?"
"I don't think so."
"Good. So are you going to ask me why? Why this freeway, why man, what's the point of it all?"
"That's good. You have a question about the Engineer then? It's usually one or the other?"
He cut her off: "Hold that thought. Have you ever heard of John Klein?"
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 Engineer. 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.
"Why would the Engineer 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 Klein. 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 Engineer went back to its normal protocols and the job went off as planned. A bridge collapse; nothing special. And that left John Klein as our last loose end."
"What did you do?"
"Suppressed his book, and his articles. Wrote him a new one. Convinced him that suicide was the best way out. All standard. But here's the thing: Klein 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 hadn't touched her coffee.
"The truth is, I went easy on Klein. I went easy on him because I liked him. That's the lesson in all 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 Klein. Get me?"
Kathleen's pulse quickened a little. She nodded.
"Good," said the man in the black suit. "You're on the move now. The dossier is in your car. Your name this time is Elizabeth Underhill. The target is a woman named Natalie Wood. I believe you're going to Alaska and that there's going to be a problem with an oil pipeline. Call me from the road if you have questions."
Kathleen (Elizabeth) readied herself to go. Before walking away from the table, she turned back. "Sir…the Engineer 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. When he left, it would be like he was never 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 similar encounters, 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 linked the creature with the disaster.
There have been no substantial Mothman sightings in over 45 years. Attempts to link the Mothman to disasters and incidents outside of Point Pleasant are purely speculative. But people do talk.