On the Run
Early Saturday morning
Sometime between bedtime and dawn
A house in suburban West Burlington, Iowa
My shoulder was being shaken. “John, wake up,” Dad said.
It was an ordinary night, leading into an ordinary day. In my dark bedroom, the clock said the time was—
“Lemme sleep,” I mumbled, as I tried to turn over.
Dad slipped into his “controlled” voice—
“John. You’re eighteen. I need you to act eighteen. I need you awake and helping us.”
By us, Dad meant Mom and me. I was the only child of Josh and Jen Bradford.
Usually Dad slipped into his “controlled” voice when he was angry but would not let himself show it—when he was talking to a difficult customer at Bradford’s Furniture Paradise. But Dad had also spoken in “controlled voice” whenever weather in Iowa had acted especially crazy.
Dad is scared of something, I thought. I completely woke up in an instant.
Seconds later, I was on my feet and pulling on my clothes. Dad said, “As soon as you can, back your car up to the garage and pop the trunk.” Dad rushed from the room.
I walked down to the dark curb and started my car. Motion caught my eye: Two dark shapes moved across my rear-view mirror.
The garage door was open, and all the lights were on. Mom’s and Dad’s Ford Expedition SUV was turned around, facing the street, and was parked on the driveway almost to the grass. The back of the SUV was open, granting access from the garage.
I backed up my old Impala next to the SUV and popped the Impala’s trunk. Dad immediately yanked the trunk-lid as high as it would go.
Meanwhile, I had set my car’s parking brake. I was just about to turn off my headlights and shut off my engine, when I saw—
Mom standing on the front porch of the Olsens’ house, with Fatso on a leash.
(Fatso was our Greyhound dog. The name was Dad’s idea of a joke—no matter how much dog food any greyhound eats, the dog always looks like a starveling.)
I saw old Mr. Olsen take Fatso’s leash. He and Mom said a few more words, then Mom hurried off the Olsens’ porch, straight for our house.
As soon as I killed the Impala’s engine and climbed out of my car, Dad said, “John, there’s a bag of dog food in the laundry room, and another bag here in the garage.—”
WHUMP. What made that noise?
“—Carry both bags of dog food over to the Olsens’ porch.”
My brain was still trying to figure out the WHUMP. I looked in my trunk—now there was a big olive-drab canvas duffel bag in there. “Dad, what is that?”
Dad answered in “controlled voice”: “Something that never leaves your trunk, till I say it’s safe. Got me?”
“Um, sure, Dad.”
He nodded. “I need you to haul dog food over to the Olsens’ now. Go.”
As I was carrying two big bags of dog food across the street, I thought, Now we won’t be unique anymore. Nobody else I knew—none of my relatives, none of my friends, none of my neighbors, none of my former classmates at West Burlington High School—owned a greyhound dog.
It was only later, as I was carrying armfuls of clothes and throwing the clothes onto the back seat of the Impala, that I realized, Not having a greyhound with us makes it harder for someone to trace us.
A half-hour later
In the garage
The SUV and my Impala were all loaded up, mostly with ugly piles of clothes. We had chosen speed of loading over grace—if we had not had a cardboard box in the house to put things inside of, we had not bothered with driving to an all-night Wal-Mart to beg boxes.
I did not ask Dad why we did not drive over to Bradford’s Furniture Paradise and pull cardboard boxes out of the Dumpster. I already knew that the cardboard boxes that came to the Receiving dock of a furniture store were usually way too big to fit in an SUV, much less my car.
Anyway, now we were ready to leave—for where, I still had no idea—when Dad held out a hand to me and a hand to Mom. “Give me your phones.”
Mom and Dad exchanged looks, then Mom opened her purse. But I hesitated. “What do you need my phone for? I have pictures on it. And apps.”
“John, I don’t have time to explain.”
“Please, John,” Mom said, “give your father your phone.”
It was obvious: Mom was scared of whatever Dad was scared of. So I handed over my smartphone. Dad disappeared into the house. When he returned to the garage, his hands were empty.
I thought, If we used our phones, we’d be easy to track. Without our phones, we can be tracked only by credit cards.
Dad said to me, “Stay behind us on the road, but close enough that you can see what we’re doing. If we get separated, we’ll pull onto the shoulder so that you can catch up to us. If you need to talk to us, honk your horn three times and I’ll pull onto the shoulder. You got all that?”
“One other thing: Don’t speed, don’t run any lights. Do nothing so any cop notices you.”
Again I nodded.
“Great. Let’s go.”
Mom and Dad got into the SUV, I got into the Impala, then I followed the SUV down the driveway.
Under a black, nighttime sky.
Thus I left the house where I had lived since I had been three years old.
I was sure I would never see that house again.
A little after nine that morning
In Fort Dodge, Iowa, my parents’ SUV and my Impala were parked at the edge of a grocery-store parking lot. Dad told me to pop the Impala’s trunk. Dad was holding packing tape in his hand; Mom was holding an empty cardboard box and a paper grocery sack.
Once the Impala’s trunk lid was up, Dad told Mom and me to stand close to the trunk, “so other people can’t see what I’m up to.”
I asked, “What are you up to?”
Dad did not answer with words. He unlocked the padlock on the olive-green duffel bag—which now I noticed, had his name and initials and his Social Security number stenciled on it. Dad reached into the bag and pulled out light-blue shirts with Bradford stenciled on the shirts, bell-bottom blue jeans, and a weirdly shaped brimless white cap—
Then Dad pulled out cash. Lots of cash. Handful after handful of cash.
I choked. “Dad, where did you get all this?”
It was Mom who answered: “John, it’s best you not know.”
It took forty-five minutes, but Dad pulled out at least 106 thousand dollars in bills; I know the amount because Mom and Dad counted it. Dad put $106,483 in the paper grocery sack, and taped the sack shut. Mom wrote on one side of the sack, “To pay off Bradford’s Furniture Paradise loan.”
After that, things were almost normal. The paper sack full of cash was placed in the cardboard box (message-side up), the box was taped shut, and the box was addressed to the loan officer at the Community Bank back home. Then we drove around till we found a post office, and Dad mailed the box.
In the parking lot of a post office in Fort Dodge, Iowa, Dad explained, “The West Burlington Community Bank loaned me money for the furniture store. I had to default. This has always bothered me, but now we’re square.”
Naturally, I had questions then. Neither Mom nor Dad answered my questions.
Before we parted to get back into our respective cars, Dad looked at me and repeated, “My seabag never leaves your trunk. And you don’t open your trunk for anybody but your mother or me. You understand?”
The next day, we arrived in Crawford, Nebraska. Crawford was where my cousin Danny owned a junkyard. Dad and I swapped out our Iowa license plates for Nebraska license plates (of which Cousin Danny had plenty).
By then, I did not feel an urge to comment on the swapping-out of license plates. I had figured out that we were fleeing from someone. The police? The FBI? Interpol? John Gotti? The Russian Mafia? It would have been nice to know what resources our mysterious opponent commanded, but Dad and Mom still were being closed-mouthed.
After we swapped out the license plates, I asked Mom and Dad, “Now where to?”
Mom said, “South Dakota.”
I asked, “What’s in South Dakota?”
“Good question,” Dad said. Mom and Dad had another looks-conversation, then Dad opened the SUV’s door and pulled out the road atlas.
Dad opened the road atlas to the page that showed South Dakota. “What’s in South Dakota?” he repeated.
Dad looked up at the sky, as his finger stabbed down. Then Dad looked down and lifted his finger. He announced, “The town of Fishy Lake is where we’re going.”
On the South Dakota map, Fishy Lake was a dot a little west of Sioux Falls.
We arrived at the real Fishy Lake, the town, the next day in late afternoon.
Normal Life—for a Few Days
We arrived in Fishy Lake, South Dakota, 2-1/2 days after we fled West Burlington, Iowa. The first thing we did in Fishy Lake was to stop at Martin’s Family Restaurant.
Once we had been seated at a booth, Mom said, “I need to call Joan Olsen. About Fatso.”
Dad said, “No, Jen, you don’t. Otherwise we might as well buy an ad in the New York Times: ‘We’re in Fishy Lake.’ ”
I asked, “Why do you need to call Mrs. Olsen about Fatso?”
Mom said, “Because I didn’t tell Harold that Fatso is allergic to shellfish, so read the ingredients before you buy dog food. Fatso almost died when he was a puppy, and I don’t want his death on my conscience.”
Dad said, “If it keeps my family safe, I can let all sorts of things bother my conscience.” Dad shot Mom a look.
By now, Mom had pulled a five-dollar bill from her purse. As she stood up, she said, “It will be one phone call, Josh, and it won’t even be my phone.”
Mom walked away, asking other customers whether she could “rent” somebody’s phone. Meanwhile, Dad was muttering, “Jen, I left your phone on the kitchen counter just so I wouldn’t have to worry about this exact shit.” Dad huffed in annoyance.
When Mom returned to our booth, she was biting her lip. After she sat down, she leaned forward and said quietly, “Last night, our house was broken into.”
It turned out that Fishy Lake was nineteen miles from Sioux Falls, South Dakota; and Sioux Falls was within rock-throwing distance of Iowa’s northwest corner. Sioux Falls was nowhere close to West Burlington, Iowa—but couldn’t Dad have picked a place in west South Dakota? If the geography also bothered Mom or Dad, neither one mentioned it.
It took less than a day to rent a house in Fishy Lake. Perhaps the rental process was quick because Dad paid for the first month’s rent, the last month’s rent, and the security deposit all with seabag cash.
As soon as we could, the three of us went to the local DMV office. We got South Dakota plates on our cars, and applied for South Dakota driver’s licenses. Admittedly, we did this not because we were law-abiding citizens but because these actions made our cars unnoticeable again.
A day after this, Dad landed a job as a salesman at Furniture USA in Sioux Falls. This annoyed Dad for two reasons. The bigger reason was that going from furniture-store owner to furniture salesman was a big comedown. The second reason that Dad was unhappy was that Furniture USA in West Burlington had been the main reason that Bradford’s Furniture Paradise had struggled to stay in business these last few years.
Meanwhile, Mom papered Sioux Falls with résumés for bookkeeper, but these things take time. For the moment, Mom was back to being a housewife.
I took a job at Chick-fil-A. The job turned out to be what I expected, except that their “You get Sundays off” rule did not have any wiggle-room or fine print in it.
In theory, guaranteed Sundays off meant that I could plan on spending Sundays with my mother, and either Sunday mornings or Sunday evenings with Dad.
In practice, I was not spending any more time with my parents than I had to, since we had arrived in Fishy Lake. By Sunday, it had been eight days since I had been roused from bed and we three had fled the only home I had ever known; and yet my parents had never offered any explanation for their panicky behavior.
So Sunday, I slept late, ate breakfast with Mom (Dad was already at work), then I climbed into the Impala. I spent the entire day (and some of the night) driving aimlessly around rural southeastern South Dakota.
The last time I saw Dad alive was Saturday night. The last time I saw Mom alive was Sunday morning.
I Meet Ploryunv the Alien
I found the abandoned farm on Sunday afternoon, while aimlessly driving on some farm road. A big “FOR SALE” sign was visible from the road. The farmhouse was surrounded by a white picket fence; the half-acre of grass enclosed by that fence was knee high. I found nothing in the barn except some moldy hay and a rusty tractor-seat. The farmland that surrounded the farmhouse and barn was not tilled, and only weeds grew there.
I cannot say why I parked my car at that abandoned farm and walked around, instead of driving on. Maybe because of the novelty of the place—I was a city boy, and I had never seen a real farm before. But part of the reason I stayed at that farm was because how alone I was there—I knew only two people in all of South Dakota, I did not want to talk to either of them, I did not want to talk to anyone else, and here I was where not even a chicken could be seen.
So I sat on the hood of my car, which was parked by the empty barn, and I listened to birds and breezes as I watched the sun go low in the western sky.
I watched the sun set.
Ten minutes after sunset, I watched a spaceship come down from the sky and land in the weedy field.
I saw no falling fire like what a meteor makes, or an Earth-made spacecraft performing atmospheric re-entry. Instead, I heard a rumble and I felt a downward wind that made my ears pop. Also, a moving part of the sky shimmered.
I ran around the corner of the barn to watch the shimmer-thing hit the ground. But it did not—at least not forcibly. Twenty feet off the ground, I heard a loud hisss—like air brakes venting—and the shimmer-thing gently dropped onto the dirt of the neglected farm-field.
The shimmer-effect stopped; I was looking at a spaceship.
On the spaceship, a rectangular piece of the hull lifted up, revealing a door underneath. This door opened from top to bottom, becoming a ramp.
An alien walked from inside the spaceship to the top of the ramp.
The alien was about four feet tall. He had thick, wrinkled skin, like an elephant; but his skin was the light yellow-green of an avocado. His arms and legs had no joints; they curved as needed, like tentacles. Each leg-tentacle and arm-tentacle ended in a three-fingered (three-toed) appendage with suction-cups at the very tips.
The alien had a face like a human, with nose and mouth, and ears on the side of his head. But the alien’s eyes traveled on horizontal tracks on his face that started on just outward of the nose and went out and back to just above the alien’s ears.
When the alien first appeared at the top of the ramp, both of his eyes were on the side of his head, like a bird’s eyes. For a minute, maybe two minutes, the alien stood there, not moving except to turn his head back and forth. One “hand” was holding what looked like a computer tablet in a green case; the other “hand” was touching something inside the ship and beside the door.
By now I was forty feet in front of the ramp. I did not move closer, wanting to not frighten the alien. Eventually the alien’s eyes tracked forward to either side of his nose, and the alien tilted his head down to look straight at me. The alien walked down the ramp.
The alien spoke; his tablet spoke to me in Russian. I walked close to the ramp and replied, “This is not Russia. Do you speak English?”
The alien heard my words (translated), then spoke. The tablet said, “Duly noted. Is this Canada or Oosa?”
I replied, “You are in the United States of America. And the abbreviation is pronounced ‘Yu-Ess-Ay,’ not ‘Oosa.’ ”
“Duly noted. My name is Ploryunv.”
“My name is John.”
Ploryunv taught me how to greet someone by bumping our arm-tentacles together, and I taught him about greeting someone by shaking hands.
Then Ploryunv paused, and his eyes slid to the side of his skull. “Will you help me, John of Earth?”
“I’ll help you if I can,” I said. “What help do you need?”
“The uranium-235 oxide in my ship-engine is chemically contaminated. Can you bring me more engine-grade uranium-235 oxide?”
“No way,” I said. “Only the USA government can give you this. The problem is, if my government learns about a space alien in South Dakota, I don’t know what exactly will happen next—but you repairing your ship and flying away won’t be what happens next.”
“This is unhappy-making. What about you bringing me pure Uranium-235, and I react it with oxygen myself?”
“Same answer. I cannot, and if you asked my government, my government would grab both you and your ship and never let you go.”
“Again this is unhappy-making. What about you bringing me natural uranium of mixed isotopes?”
“Same answer. I’m sorry.”
Ploryunv worked his tablet then, holding it horizontal as the “fingers” of his other “hand” tapped the tablet’s surface. I was surprised to see that three-dimensional images and diagrams appeared (and soon disappeared) a few inches above the tablet.
About ten minutes later, Ploryunv said to me, “Crystalline carbon, I can use it as a catalyst to remove the contamination. Or is crystalline carbon also blocked by your government?”
I did not know what he meant by crystalline carbon; the alien had to show me a three-dimensional diagram. It turned out that he meant diamond.
“Yes,” I replied, “I can manage that.” I was sure there was enough cash still in the seabag for me to go to a pawnshop and buy a ring set. But I did not have the key to the seabag; I would have to ask Dad for the key.
I told Ploryunv, “If worse comes to worse, I won’t be able to bring you the diamond till tomorrow, and I’ll need to bring another Earth man out here to meet you.” I added bitterly, “Don’t worry, he’s great at keeping secrets.”
It was almost full dark by then, but I was worried that at sunrise, anyone flying overhead (a U.S. Army helicopter, for instance) could see the spaceship. I said as much to Ploryunv. It turned out that while he could not fly his spaceship out into space, he could move it along the ground just fine. He blew air out the bottom of his spaceship, and I gave him guidance with the headlights on my Impala, and between us, we got his spaceship hidden away in the empty barn.
I drove home carefully in the darkness, writing down landmarks, road signs, and trip-odometer readings, so that I could find the abandoned farm again. By the time I was driving on the streets of Fishy Lake, I was in a good mood. I’ve met an actual, no-shit space alien! And better than that, I’m going to help him out!
Jeez, I was so naïve about my future.
My good mood vanished when I turned onto my street.
Three Fishy Lake police cars, two unmarked police cars, two ambulances, a Sioux Falls PD crime-scene van, and a TV-news van, all were parked in front of my house.
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