The last of the autumn leaves floated down to join the multi-coloured pile that had gathered against her wall.
Moments later the kids at Number 21, a girl of five dressed in a red coat, long blonde hair flying behind her, and her four year old brother, in green, ran through the leaves on their way to school.
Janice sipped her sweet, black coffee as she sat and watched the family’s progress. Something had to be done about those leaves, and it looked like it would have to be her.
The school bell was her cue. Mr Whiskers, her tabby, watched in disdain as Janice made her way to the cloakroom, pulled on gardening gloves, her coat, hat and shoes, grabbed her rake and a roll of black sacks.
The cold air drifted into the blue and white tiled hall the second she opened the door, catching her breath and taking her by surprise. Janice gasped, gritted her teeth against the sudden, chilly onslaught. The day was overcast, threatened rain.
“Better get a wriggle on, Jan,” she said to herself, “before it lashes down.” She lifted her rake and attacked the nearest arboreal pile.
About thirty minutes into the job, as she combined two leafy piles, the teeth of the rake hit something hard with a clang, causing the shaft to shudder in her hands.
“What was that?” she muttered, testing the hidden area with the garden tool. There was definitely something buried in the pile. Intrigued, she abandoned the rake and started sifting through the leaves with her gloved fingers until they revealed a pale, smooth stone large enough to fit neatly in her hand.
“Ugh, is that all?” But something in the back of her brain reminded her she’d never seen such a pale rock here before; it was almost white. Janice picked it up and her fingers slid along the rock’s underside. She flipped it over with her thumb. It was covered in tiny symbols reminiscent of some forgotten language, contained in a border. She glanced along the street. It was deserted but for the parked cars. Janice shoved the stone in her pocket and carried on with her task.
An hour later, she felt the first tentative raindrops fall on her neck and trickle down her spine. Janice shuddered with the cold. Three more, identical stones were contained in the pockets of her coat. Four black sacks leaned against her garden wall like bloated Budhas, full to bursting with red, amber, brown and green leaves, as well as the odd twig. Not a single leaf remained in the street.
“Nice work.” Mr Jenkins, from the house opposite, appeared beside her, gazing at the sacks. He was an older gentleman, with a balding head, green eyes and a T-shirt that didn’t quite cover his beer belly. The rain started to gain momentum.
“Thanks.” A quick glance at the sullen skies. A raindrop plopped on her forehead.
He shook his head. “No, thank you, Janice. We both know the Council should be doing this.”
Janice nodded her agreement. “True.” If she stuck to monosyllables, maybe he’d take the hint and go home, she thought.
No such luck. He eyed up something in her hand. “’Ere, whatchagot there?”
Janice looked down at the stone. “Probably nothing. Just a stone I found while raking leaves. Looked interesting at the time.”
“Let’s ‘ave a look?”
Against her better judgement, Janice handed him the stone.
“Got marks on one side.” Jenkins seemed oblivious to the rain.
“So I noticed.” She edged away, torn between wanting to be back home before the rain turned torrential and recovering possession of the stone.
“Aliens,” said Mr Jenkins.
“I doubt it’s aliens,” Janice smiled.
“T’is. I know a thing or two about these things. Aliens, I tell ya. The UFO Community will love this.” He stared at the rock in his hand. Looked at her. “Any more?”
“No,” she lied. “Just that one.”
“Shame… Suppose you want it back?”
“Can I take a photo of it first?” He didn’t wait for an answer, just whipped his phone out of his pocket, snapped a couple of pictures and then, reluctantly, handed the stone back to her.
“Thank you, Mr Jenkins,” Janice pulled the two sides of her coat together, the rain coming in down in sheets. “Think we’d better head inside.”
“Aye, see ya later, Janice. I tell ya, the UFO Community will love that stone.”
She smiled. “Thanks for the advice,” putting her key in the lock, “I’ll think about it.”
The warmth of the house enveloped her as Janice wiped her feet on the Welcome mat, hung up her dripping coat on its hook. Mr Whiskers greeted her on the purple runner in the hall. His wide green eyes regarded her, the tip of his tail twitching.
“Don’t you start,” Janice padded through to the kitchen and filled his food bowl. He sniffed it, walked away in disgust. She rolled her eyes. Cats!
An hour later, she was in her study at the back of the house, all four stones in a row on the pale oak desk, a mug of tea slowly cooling as she sat and read messages on a popular UFO conspiracy forum, Mr Whiskers curled up in a bed beside her.
“Oh, for God’s sake, Janice,” she said. “Get a grip. Speak to Colin.” Colin Richards, her brother-in-law, was a researcher at the local university. She pulled out her phone and scrolled down until she found his number. He answered on the second ring.
“Hi Colin. I’ve got something that you might find interesting.”
“Coptic, scribed…” Colin hummed while he considered the two rocks in his hands, replacing one with one of its siblings from the white shelf beside him. A big black desk and matching leather chair was behind him, and behind them, row after row of bookshelves lined the wall, creaking with the weight of hundreds of books on history and science. “Probably during the reign of Alexander the Great.” Towering over her at six foot two, and as thin as a beanpole, he looked at her from over the rim of his wire-framed spectacles, a lock of brown hair flopping into his blue eyes. He flicked his head, tossing the lock aside. “Where did you find them?”
“In the street, under a pile of leaves I was raking yesterday.”
“And they’ve been there all this time?”
Janice shrugged. “I suppose so.”
“It’s a wonder no one stood on one.”
The thought had occurred to her, too. “What happens now?”
Colin shifted his weight from one long leg to the other, thought better of it, and sat down, drawing the office chair to the desk. “We’ll have them dated, just to be sure, but we’re probably looking at something very special.” He gazed at the stones, now reunited in a row between them. “After that, well, I imagine the British Museum will be interested in them. They could be worth a fortune!”
“Not aliens, then,” Janice smiled.
She regaled the story of the conversation she’d had with Mr Jenkins the afternoon before.
Colin rolled his eyes. “No, not aliens, Jan. It’s definitely ancient Greek.”
The conspiracy theorists vehemently disagreed. Back home in her study, the story about the stone had erupted on the UFO forum. It seemed Jenkins had been typing while she’d been reading yesterday:
Aliensarereal 4th Dec 2022, 14:59
Look what my neighbour found under a pile of leaves.
Ufo4eva 4h Dec 15:00
OMG, finally! The proof we’ve been waiting for!
AliensRAmongus 4th Dec 2022 15:01
Let’s see the UFO Deniers deny this.
Aliensarereal 4th Dec 2022 15:02
@AliensRAmongus, yeah, neighbour said she thinks it’s an ancient language, haha. As if!
Janice checked the number of pages: Page 1 of 15. What had she unleashed now? This could be worse than the time she’d supported Gay rights on a thinly-veiled homophobic forum.
She rubbed her forehead, feeling a headache coming on. She knew it was a mistake to show Jenkins that stone. She reached for her mobile, copied and pasted the link to the thread, and sent it to Colin with the message, “you’d better read this.” He messaged her after ten minutes. “Jan, I think you’d better grab Mr Whiskers and come to ours. You’re going to be swamped by UFO botherers.”
The cat chose that moment to sit in front of her and look at her.
“What do you think, Whiskers? Should we go to Auntie Mae’s and Uncle Colin’s?”
Tail twitch. “Mew.”
They didn’t get the chance.
Janice watched from the window as a group of Jenkins’ UFO cronies crowded his front garden. He opened the door and a second later, indicated her cottage with his head. A steady stream of UFO conspiracy theorists flowed across the road, jumped her small gate and stone wall, and banged on her red front door. All that was missing were the torches and pitchforks.
“Janice? Are you there? Do you have the alien stone? Can we see the stone, Janice?
Someone opened the letter box, a pair of brown eyes surveyed her hallway. “Janice, you’re going to be famous. Can we see the stone? Please?”
Janice backed towards her kitchen door. “I haven’t got them.” Too late, she realised her mistake.
“Them?” Brown Eyes looked to the right then left, “There’s more! Guys! She has more than one stone!”
More raps on her door. “How many?”
“How many stones did you find?”
“Where are they?”
Janice ignored them as she closed the living room curtains, climbed wearily to her study, and curled in a ball on the sofa-bed opposite her desk, Mr Whiskers at her heels.
By the next morning, the national press had grabbed hold of the story. As Janice opened her living room curtains, she saw at least three TV news vans, all with different logos, gleaming in the early morning sunlight, parked in such a way that they blocked the road. The only consolation was that Jenkins was surrounded by them too. But he seemed to be courting the attention.
A reporter for Channel 4 News stood with her back to her gate, auburn head only just visible over the throng, camera pointed straight at her. Her voice carried through the thin, single-paned window. “We’re here in Leacester Meadows…” The nearest thing even resembling a meadow was over a mile away. “…Where a resident has reportedly found forty stones, all covered in alien inscriptions.”
Where did she get the forty from?
Something caused the crowd to stir and the news reporters zoned in on it, cameras rotating to the left.
“Sir, Madam, Channel 4 News. Do you know Janice? Do you know about the alien stones?”
Colin and Mae were grim-faced as they forced their way through the throng and carved a path to her front door. Janice fell to her haunches against the wall under her window and sobbed with relief.
She backhanded her tears and roughly dried her eyes. She wasn’t usually so weak.
“Jan? It’s Col and Mae.”
“Coming.” It came out as a croak. She cleared her throat. “Coming.” Louder, but she still doubted they heard. She rose to her feet and made her way to the front door.
Meanwhile Colin addressed the crowd. “They’re not proof of alien visitation. They’re ancient Greek. Coptic… No, I don’t know how they got here… No, I’m sure my sister-in-law doesn’t either.”
“Have you seen them, Sir?” Another news reporter.
“What do they say?”
“How many are there?”
“You’re a liar - they’re alien communication!”
Janice opened the door, just as an egg flew over Colin’s head and into the hall, where it splattered on the tiles and the runner. Colin ushered Mae inside, dodged another ovoid missile as he ducked behind the door and slammed it shut. Mae wrapped Janice in her motherly arms as she wept once again. Mae rocked the both from side to side.
“I told you to grab Mr Whiskers and come to ours,” Colin said.
Janice pulled away from her sister and once more, dried her eyes with the back of her hand. “I didn’t get a chance,” she sniffed, making her unsteady way to the couch behind the living room door. “They were already at Jenkins’ house by the time you text me last night… I didn’t expect it to be like this.”
“Of course you didn’t,” soothed Mae, stroking her sister’s chestnut hair.
“What am I going to do?”
“We’ll sort it, Jan. But first, we’ll have to convince the UFO botherers the stones are not extraterrestrial,” said Colin.
It wasn’t easy, but after a week, the conspiracy theorists had all given up and gone home. Janice felt able to breathe again.
And then, the phone rang.
“Hello, is this Janice Reynolds?”
“Hi, Ms Reynolds. I’m Cathy Grimshaw from the British Museum. I understand you found some stones whilst raking leaves last week?”
“We’ve had them analysed, and they’re genuine. They’re also incredibly rare. Were you looking to sell?”
Janice blinked. Rapidly. She hadn’t seen the stones since Colin had taken them from her.
“Well, you see, my brother-in-law has them…”
“Would that be Colin Richards? We know. He gave us your number… How does one hundred thousand pounds sound?”
Janice sank into the nearest chair, clutching at the gold locket at her throat. “One hundred thousand?” It came out as a squeak.
“We’d like to add them to a collection we have on our Alexander the Great exhibit.”
One hundred thousand pounds sterling for four stones found under a pile of leaves? Janice imagined lying on a sun lounger in some far-off country, working on a tan before returning to her mortgage-free cottage and her beloved Mr Whiskers, who just might have a few rescue friends to keep him company.
“That would be fantastic, thank you.”