Sam the Sham Smith awoke between two dumpsters, the chill of the night invigorated him into a sitting position. His belly churned with toxic waste, his head swam with razor-finned sharks, his mouth tasted like shit as usual. He didn’t know what shit actually tasted like but had a pretty good idea. Many things he had tasted from the dumpsters of Fat Man Alley he imagined tasted like the brown goo from a dog’s butt.
The alley was affectionately named for the row of restaurants on the street it catered to. High-uppity-class places with snooty waitstaff and menu items too weird even for the fancy-pants foodies who order the dishes to impress but dream of a New York style pizza delivered to their fancy homes.
He had been one of them. Tasting all that was considered, ironically, ‘the shit’ for new and upcoming establishments as well as the old clinging to tradition. His forte had been wine, he had been widely known as a sommelier.
What irony that he now drank Two Buck Chuck from a bottle within a brown paper sack. He was not allowed into the Trader Joe’s, people complained of his smell…and crazy stare. All this irony was killing him.
The first mission of each day was to beg a passerby to buy him the three or four bottles his head needed for that twilight coma. He had money.
Today sucked. Every face that passed was made of cold, heartless granite, complete with the flat, sightless eyes of statues.
By sunset he was growing very nervous. A night without his wine would crush him and reduce him to a quivering, blubbering, sack of rags. TJ closed at ten pm. He considered taking a chance but was afraid if the manager caught him again, he’d have to move his camp across town to the TJ by the outlet mall.
Sam Julius Smith, one time Silicon Valley super child sat and contemplated his next move…
This Thursday night, in the streets of this sprawling California metropolis, under ugly yellow sodium lights, Sam sat close to the Trader Joe’s. He was getting nervous. He could tell the time by first the streetlights coming to yellowy life, and then by the moon, low in the sky.
A stocky well-dressed man came from the direction of the tall buildings downtown. He strode with an air familiar to Sam, he’d had it once. He wore suit-jacket and trousers, and a crisp pale salmon colored shirt. He looked at the sky overhead as he neared, effectively ignoring Sam, who watched the young man’s eyes. He wondered if he’d ever been so callous and self -absorbed not to be affected by the suffering and pain in a fellow human being’s eyes.
His chance at a dreamless sleep was slipping by.
He felt futile enragement…then guilt as the man stopped in front of him. He said, “here ya go buddy…”
The one-dollar bill floated downwards like the soft grey feather of a dove.
Sam said, “Hey, can you help me…I need---?”
The guy had tiny glistening white hairs in a blonde goatee too small for his round face. He tossed another bill down and turned to leave, ignoring Sam’s voice.
“Please. It’ll take just ten minutes...”
But the man backed away, fear and disgust in his eyes, as if afraid Sam was going to touch him. Sam leaned back, showing his grimy palms in an ‘okay, okay’ gesture. Sam sighed as the bulk of the suited man retreated, he’d have to settle for Thunderbird this night, from the seedy liquor store four blocks down, past the tracks, in the seedy side of town.
Just past midnight, in his shelter in the alley, Sam finished the last of the horrid lighter fluid that passed for wine; by the end of the bottle, he no longer gagged at the taste, tongue fuzzy and numb, his bloodshot eyes drifted shut. He hoped that the two bottles had been enough…
They had not.
Through the dark house he roamed, awoken from sleep by…a noise? Whatever it had been, it had not awakened his wife. She slept with yellow foam earplugs wedged in her ears, without them, she’d be subjected to his buzzsaw snores that he knew were bad because once in awhile they woke him with an extra loud snort. He left the lights off, padding carefully and only concerned not to trip over a Tonka dump truck or step on a wayward piece of Lego.
The bathroom door was open, as was the guest room his mother-in-law frequented, he imagined a whiff of the floral perfume she bathed in as he passed.
Halfway down the dark hallway, he realized there had been a humming noise all along. As he neared his son’s room, the humming grew to an unpleasant buzzing like a million fat bumblebees hovering in place. The sound vibrated the fine hairs in his ears -itchy- and he rubbed them, but it only got louder as he neared the closed door.
His son had turned seven the week before and had insisted that now he was big he could sleep with it closed. To remind his amused parents that he was big now and deserved as much privacy as they themselves insisted on, he’d crayoned a sign that read, Scott’s Room, and drawn a white skull and crossbones like the one he’d seen on Pirates of the Caribbean. In the dim light, the white waxy bone face glowed, the eyes stared ominously at him. He realized there was blueish light coming from under his son’s door, which was odd, his nightlight glowed soft yellow. He touched the brass doorknob; it vibrated as if filled with live wires.
Sam opened the door a crack. Brilliant light spilled out, too bright to be the moon. The window was filled with it. The illuminated bed under it was empty, the blue flannel sheets rumpled and thrown back, the dark quilt lay pooled on the floor. Though chilly outside, window was open, the curtains wafted inwards. The light faded and Sam saw a small pair of bare feet just lifting out of sight. He raced to the window as the light petered out, taking the hum with it. He leaned out, grasping the window frame with both hands and sucked in the cold night air. All was dark, all was silent- no nightbirds, no night song- nothing was all that remained after his son was taken.
Memory or dream? He no longer knew. He’d long ago stopped speaking of it, and felt he was as insane as all the people in his life had insisted he was. It was dark but the moon had gone down…’5:00am?’ He heard tiny, clawed feet scurrying in the dumpster beside him, punctuated by little squeaks. Out on the nearly deserted streets a bottle rolled, he willed whomever it was to keep walking past the alley, and they did. TJ didn’t open for another three hours or so, he decided he’d go relieve himself while the alley was still cloaked in darkness.
The windshield was vast and curved. Outside of it was velvety black spotted with millions of stars of all sizes. Some shone with blue or green coronas, some gathered together like a streak of glitter on a child’s unicorn painting, and some blinked in and out. Those were satellites. A blue orb came into sight as the awe-inspiring view of outer space panned to the left.
The silhouette of a long slim arm swept across the interior side of the windshield and pointed its tip towards the planet.
A voice in the dark cockpit said, “There.”
After a few keyboard taps, a second voice said, “Yes. The dark side. The western world. Master Soong wishes to learn more of the English speakers.”
“Speaking of which, yours is quite improved.”
“Thank-you. It has been fun learning their most wise…er…widespread lang-u-age.”
Faint light flickered on the control panel before them. One blinked red, and a long, thin arm tapped it. Stars became streaks as the ship picked up its pace. In the center of the streaks the blue planet grew larger. The hazy corona became swirls of cloud cover and amidst the vast fields of blue, green and brown areas solidified. A tiny white glow clearly revealed itself to be the planet’s singular moon.
Sam the Sham Smith wiped himself as clean as he could with a soft, crumpled bit of newspaper. He headed back towards his tarp-tented space between the two dumpsters. His head ached; the throbbing temples being beaten by a demon drummer in a marching band in hell’s own parade. His ears throbbed with a buzzing sound. It wasn’t a new feeling, in fact, he was depressingly accustomed to it and to the churning, sloshing feeling of his stomach. A flood of acidic wetness filled his mouth. He leaned against a cool, smooth metal garbage bin to his right and doubled over as his floodgate lips released a torrent of bile only slightly less offensive as the wine had been going in.
He felt remarkably better though the nasty little demon drummer still pounded away, ‘boom BOOM boom BOOM…’ As he squeezed his eyes shut and rubbed the tears from his cheeks, he realized the buzzing had intensified. The metal bin he leaned on was vibrating.
When he opened his eyes, a spotlight came on, blinding white, and directly over his head. He tried to see its source but was struck sightless by its brilliance. He fell forward but felt no hard pavement claim his limp body. He floated…
Thing One and Thing Two stood as Master Soong and his entourage of two studiers came into the spacious, barren white room. While learning English, they’d become great fans of Dr.Suess. Each creature was eight feet tall, and shaped very much like a squid, with pointed heads, large round black eyes and shimmering slick dark skin like that of a catfish. Thing One was slightly more rotund in the belly area and Thing Two bobbed lightly up and down in a gesture of nervousness. Their bodies ended in tails like a slug’s, each had four long, thin, tentacle arms, two of which flattened at the ends and held dozens of small, knobby suction cups like tiny white ears.
Thing One nudged Thing Two and the fidgeting subsided.
Master Soong glided past the two Proximites, his keen eyes roved over the bodies strapped onto the tables. Like the rest of the Soong Dynasty, he had learned English; in order to learn about the Earth inhabitants, the key was communication. The Earthling’s simple language was easy to master and far less complicated than that of their own.
The humans were stripped of their clothing, strapped securely by braided titanium-like straps, and arranged from the youngest to the eldest.
The first two are babies. Soong says, pointing to the blue one, “That one is dead.”
Thing Two nervously says, “Yes. They so delicate but---”
Thing One nudges its partner into silence.
Soong makes a face at a toddler boy.
He shakes his head as he examines the first of the two children and bends to look closely at the next, expression blank. The partners glance at each other, no reaction is good.
Soong frowns at the lone teenager. He slaps his whip-like appendage against the boy’s face. The boy shakes his head slowly and blinks his eyes open. He screams and speaks in a rush of Spanish. Soong covers the boy’s face with an appendage ending in a mass of tiny suction cups and the boy falls back asleep.
Soong frowns at the next, a young man, and again at the next, a young woman.
His expression is one of boredom as his eyes pass over the dirty middle-aged man.
There are fifteen humans strapped to the shiny white tables in all.
The remaining six are inspected and only the second to last, an elderly man, elicits a comment from Soong, “this one dying, he no good.”
Thing Two slumps slightly. Thing One Nudges him into standing straight.
Without another word, Master Soong glides out of the room, followed by the studiers and lastly, the partners. As they exit the doorless entryway, the brightness of the white room dims to calm azure blue.
As the squid-like creature who appears to be their leader approaches the table he lies on, Sam forces his breathing slow and deep. As the tall shadow passes over him, barely hesitating, he wonders, ‘did I just pass some sort of test?’
Ten minutes later the light in the room dims. The creatures are silent- no rustling garments, no footsteps…only a faint, wet, slithering sound. He keeps his eyes closed for a few more minutes not certain they have all left.
At last, he chances a peek. He squints open one eye. The room is softly lit by blue lighting from floor sources he cannot see. No aliens in the plain, smooth-walled room. It’s devoid of anything but the fifteen tables. To his left are eight, the second to last is empty.
To his right are six…on the table next to him lies a man, his head is turned to Sam, his eyes are open.
Sam sucks in his breath, a scream caught in his throat. He didn’t want that suction tentacle thing touching his face.
The man drawls, “Howdy. First timer, eh?”
Sam feels his head nodding.
“Sam…Uh…so you’ve been here before?”
“Third tam’s a charm.”
Sam looked towards the doorways at either ends of the long spacious room. He whispered, “They can’t hear us?”
“Oh yes. Th’all most certainly caain. There ain’t no point in whispering either.”
The young woman to the left of Sam moaned in her sleep.
As if in reply, one of the children muttered and groaned as if it had a belly ache.
Louis said, “You saw they don’t take kandly to loud ruckuses…And you should know, They are not cruel beings, just curious.”
Sam accepted all this. His head felt clear. He craved no drink. It was as if he’d been preparing for this since the night his son was taken. He had a million questions but before he could ask, the man on the other side of Louis started screaming.
Louis said, “Jes be calm, Sam, and stay relaxed. Y’git more ants wi’ honey dontcha know.”
Sam was calm. He felt a peace. He had been right.
The lights flashed to brilliant white, the room an assault to his eyes. He wished the screamer to quiet, he waited anxiously for the alien squid to place its hand (?) over the peace-disrupters face.
Another had been awoken, one of the children, and the shrill screams could be that only of a little girl.
He closed his eyes. Within ten minutes, the room was quiet, the screamers asleep, the lights dimmed.
Sam heard people stirring in the room, not daring to speak, perhaps frozen with terror. Down the row to his right, he heard the wheezing of lungs that needed a respirator, and, in this environment, Darth Vader came to mind immediately. He assumed it was the old guy the Master had announced was dying.
He said, “Hey Louis, what was going on between the two and the one in charge?” he’d been curious because he’d felt a sort of kinship with the pair.
“Oh. Right. Those two, they go by Thing One and Two…” Louis chuckled. “Apparently, Suess’ genius is universal. They collect humans for their scientists, or studiers, to study. Pure curiosity. They mean no harm---”
“But harm is done! They ruined my life…”
“Yes. The fallout is often …destructive to a human’s mand. It ain’t their intention…” He sighed then said, “The pair who took you, are paid for Earthlings…not cash lak we have. But favors, upgrades, promotions…stuff lak that.”
Sam recalled the way the master had inspected the humans on the tables, and he computed what Louis was saying, like a child putting puzzle pieces together… The Things were like the guys on American Pickers, the Master the buyer.
“Babies ain’t worth much,” Louis continued. “Toddlers an’ lil kids cain be depending on their family
situation. Entitled kids are boring, the suffering poor are worth more. Teenagers are usually not worth much, they all feel that no one understands them, blah blah…an adult who’s not English ken fetch a price for a studier interested in their language and culture. Old people are worth the most. It’s hard to keep them alive, many have dementia or Alziemer’s…healthy ones are like diamonds to them. They cure people with cancer by the way…”
Sam said, “We’re their currency.”
“Ayup. That Soong fella dug you. Am thinkin’ you were purty destitute, homeless? No offense, but ya smell awful. The homeless fascinate Soong. So many different stories. He likes crazy too. They don’t have any of that here. Yer worth a lot.”
“But the tests---”
“Painless. An they fix you, some may lose their shit when they’re returned to Earth. Some, like me, start a cult following. That, by the way, is why they have had me back. They’re tickled to know they have a religion in their name. These fuckers are my guardian angels, ha!”
“Wait. Your’e saying they return people? Back to whenever---?”
“Ayup. They’ll return you too one day. They’re kanda like Buddhists who cain’t even kill an ant. But…the last thing they want is to have Humans escape this place and God forbid, start breeding.”
Samuel Julius Smith felt at peace. He felt…re-born. He would find out what happened to his son. If he’d been returned to Earth, Sam would never have known. He may have been home for years. He been lost in a world of his own making.
He would find him. And do it sober. He was eager to start communicating with these squid creatures and re-build his life.
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Wow. This is great.
Salut. This had some very original elements. Pardon giving notes because you might not be able to fix: 1.) if pared down the first part -- the impact would be stronger. 2.) After the reveal... maybe a little twist for the ending. Excellent dialogue. Liked the accent -- it came through without weighting the story down.