“Don’t go there,” I told my sister, shaking my head. “Don’t take us.”
The driver (aka- my sister, Kia) met my plea with a steely silence. I tried again.
“They don’t want me there anyway. I’m bad news, right?” I shook my head. “We should turn around.”
Kia, eyes forward, both hands on her steering wheel, sighed.
“You’re still moving forward, sis.”
“I can’t slam on the breaks or make a U-turn on the damn highway, now can I?”
“Maybe not, but could you at least acknowledge my request?”
“You mean the part where you keep running away from what happened that night?”
“We already know what happened that night.”
Kia’s breath seemed to catch. “Do we?”
I turned to her, heart pounding, my eyes feeling as though they might pop right out of my face.
My sister hunched her shoulders and winced.
“Keep your eyes open.”
“They’ve always been open, Charlie.”
“‘That’s why you’re the only one who ever believed me about that night, right?”
“That’s why I’m driving you to this little tea party.”
“Jesus H. Christ! Leave it to Quinn to anglify life itself.”
“Oh stop it,” Kia chided with a small chuckle. “I thought Quinn was your friend.”
“It’s still true isn’t it? And all because some sexy Goth chick once told him he looks like Prince Harry.”
“I seem to recall you crying into your beer-“
“He looks more like Conan O’Brien,” I chortled.
“-when that tall Russian model called you pudgy, once.”
“A term of endearment. We dated that summer.”
“Whatever happened to her, anyway?”
“Natalia’s travel Visa expired. She couldn’t get it renewed.”
“Bummer. I never knew that.”
“Word,” I replied, not knowing what the fuck else to say to that.
Kia sighed, “I’m sorry about Natalia.”
I shook my head. “Nothin’ to be sorry about, sis. At least I know what happened to her.” I tensed up, and Kia seemed to hiss at my verbal jab at the universe. “Don’t worry, sis. Just drive a while, okay?”
Considering Kia never used cruise control, she kept a steady pace. It was easy to zone out as a passenger, or it would have been if my mind hadn’t automatically drifted to Tiffany Rogers
I still remembered what Tiffany looked like the day I met her. Long, black braids framed a slender face with subtle cheek bones accentuated by a flawless, mocha complexion. Thick, but defined eyebrows set high above large, heavy lidded eyes were set at an angle that pointed down toward the bridge of a thin nose. I didn’t realize I’d gasped at her intense, hazel-eyed gaze until the corners of her lucious, pink lips turned upward into the most delectably impish grin I’d ever seen.
I couldn’t stop the rumbling “Wow” that escaped my mouth.
“Thank you, stranger.”
I would later go on to describe her voice as “audible velvet.”
Kia laughed at that one, but I’d neither seen nor heard anyone like Tiffany before.
Now, twenty-two years since the night she went missing, I’d yet to meet anyone quite like her.
That thought brought me back to Quinn’s tea party, and I shuddered, wiping tears from my burning eyes. I pulled out my iphone to look at the reason I let my sister drag my sorry carcass out here in the first place.
I pulled up my text messages and scrolled through them until I found the strange message from an unknown number that stood out to me.
All the message contained was an odd youtube link that I’d stupidly clicked on the night I’d gotten it.
What popped up was a video to a song I hadn’t heard since Tiffany and I slow danced to it more than two decades ago. The song had been her favorite, and the lyrics of the chorus seemed oddly appropriate for tonight.
“I’ll keep holding on..”
I received that message a week ago. Neither the text nor Tiffany would leave my mind after that.
The sun began to set when we arrived at Quinn's house. The white of the untouched snow by his front door put me in mind of padded, white walls. The crunch of the snow beneath my boots mimicked shattered glass, and I automatically rubbed the knuckles of my right fist.
Kia hugged me goodbye before promising not to leave without me, no matter how long I was here.
“You know what has to happen tonight,” Kia whispered urgently into my ear. She squeezed for dear life and I squeezed back.
“I know,” I muttered. “I got this.”
Once my sister departed, I found myself knocking on Quinn’s red front door though I couldn’t remember walking the rest of the way there. The door began to shimmer against the elongating shadows cast by a setting sun.
I watched as the red door slowly opened to reveal a curtain of inky blackness punctured by shimmering, bright dots of varying sizes and hues. A tall, dark figure stood back just beyond the door’s edge. I could see the soft posture and the languid stillness of someone attempting to blend in. The bright dots stretching and curving over the contours of a 40 something year old man ruined the illusion completely.
I looked from the star strewn blackness to the tall figure, then back again. I rolled my eyes. “Always so dramatic, Quinn.”
“Would you like to join us, Charlie, or would you prefer to let winter’s icy fingers squeeze your testicles?”
“Maybe I’ll turn and cough for that.”
“I bet you would.”
“Seriously, you pretentious bastard…” I sighed. “Let’s get the tea and crumpets out.”
“You mean, ‘Good show,’ don’t you?”
“Good…” Quinn began as he bear-hugged me. “Shit.”
I stepped inside, and the door closed behind me with a “snap.”
The upside down, obsidian colander of a star-pocked night surrounded me, the thick, eerie silence punctuated by Quinn’s sudden cough.
“Where is he?” I asked.
“Over here,” came a rumbling voice to my right.
I turned my head toward the unseen speaker. I heard a ringing, metallic click followed by a familiar “zick” noise. A small, orange flame ignited some six feet away from Quinn and me, and the tiny fire cast a shimmering pair of golden dots in the middle of two dark pupils. Soon, a bright ember rose and shook with the rhythm of the speaker’s next somewhat muffled words. “You still have the nerve to show yourself here. Might as well join us, you crazy bastard.”
“Hello to you too, Hondo,” I laughed, trying not to force it.
Hondo cleared his throat, then queried, “You still miss her, Charlie?”
“Every damn day.”
“The fuck you care, anyway?” I snapped. “Not like you came to visit me all those years ago.”
“Would I have been allowed?” Hondo jeered.
“You were on the list.”
“Sure, boss. Guess I could’ve entertained myself watchin’ you try to get out of a fuckin’ straight jacket.”
I stepped toward Hondo. “Fuck you.”
“Or I might’ve caught ya humpin’ the walls of that padded cell, thinkin’ of that fine black ass.” Hondo began moan exaggeratedly, the ember of his cigarette bouncing beneath the stars. “Oh baby! Uh! Tiffany-“
An invisible inferno engulfed my head. I lunged at Hondo, but was brought up short by a pair of lanky, vice-like arms. “Ease down, Charlie! Don’t let him rile you so much.”
“Just let me fuck him up, Quinn!” I growled, pushing against Quinn’s surprising strength. “Won’t take more than ten seconds.”
“Pipe down, Rocky,” Hondo chuckled, slowly rising from his chair. “I was just having a laugh, man. You know how we do.”
“Hondo, I daresay you would have deserved the beating of a lifetime for your insensitive commentary,” Quinn rebutted, smoothly.
“I didn’t know you felt that way, Mary Poppins.”
I stopped struggling just to gauge Quinn’s reaction.
I didn’t have to wait long. Overhead lights suddenly flooded the room with fluorescent brightness. Quinn hit me with a sharp side-eye before he slowly let me go. Standing tall again, he shook his head, laughing. “Every time, you two.”
Hondo and I glared at each other.
With the sigh of a long-suffering father, Quinn uttered “Alexa, play ‘Space Odyssey.’”
Hondo’s glare faltered as he glanced pointedly at Quinn, then quickly back to me. As soulful, electronic, ambient music began to thrum through Quinn’s enormous dining room, Hondo shook his head.
I shrugged my shoulders.
Hondo nodded, rolling his eyes.
We both laughed. It almost sounded calm.
It didn’t take long for Quinn to set steaming tea mugs on the glass dining room table for all three of us. Quinn dimmed the lights again, stood behind his chair, and waited.
Hondo and I both knew what he was anticipating. We each took our spot behind our respective chairs, and looked toward the only other placemat at the tiny, diskoid table. To be in the middle of an enormous, high-ceilinged dining room, standing around a tiny, reflective table surrounded by what looked like outer space left me feeling both unbalanced and insignificant. Quite the double whammy.
Hondo once told me the dining room setting terrified him.
In truth, I thought the table had once been bigger, like there were supposed to be more of us here.
But what the hell did I know?
“Gentlemen,” Quinn began almost reverently, bowing slightly from his waist. “Let us begin.”
I heard the scraping of wooden chairs against the hardwood floor beneath my feet as the others took their seats. For the moment, the sound itself helped ground me. Only I didn’t move.
“Is something the matter, Charlie?” Quinn inquired. “Do you not wish to enjoy this lovely tea with us?”
“I… I think we really need to talk about that night.”
“After the first toast, Charlie,” Quinn answered in an overly soothing tone. “Surely you, of all people, would appreciate that.”
“You mean our toast to the departed? Quinn…” I shook my head, struggling to find the right words.
“Alexa, kill music,” Quinn commanded the air around him.
“That’s okay, Charlie,” Hondo chimed in after a tense few seconds. “I’ll drink to that beautiful babe though I didn’t know her that good.”
“Hondo, I don’t think she’s-
“-Deceased, Charlie?” Quinn cut across me. “Is that what you mean?”
“Yes, you, walking, talking googlebot! I mean deceased.”
“Hey, fellas? What the fuck does being sick have to do with this? She’s gone, and we’re no doctors.”
“Jesus, Hondo. Do you not hear the difference between de-“
“Dead!” I shouted, my chest heaving, my palms beginning to sweat. “Quinn means dead, man!”
“She isn’t fucking coming back, Charlie,” Hondo shot back. “What the fuck does that say to you?”
“It says your memory is bullshit!” I shouted.
“Or you’re calling me a liar again!”
“Gentlemen, please!” Quinn interjected, trying to restore calm.
“Hondo, you tried to have me busted for her murder!”
“You know what I saw that night, Charlie?” Hondo slammed his mug onto the glass table. How the glass didn’t even crack at that moment still baffles me. “We were all at the edge, man. You were standing closest to her. I saw a flash of light, then boom! She- she fell, man!” I heard the slow scrape of Hondo’s chair as he pushed it away from the table. “Right off the edge.”
I nodded, placing a hand in the front pocket of my jeans. I felt the rough, rubbery exterior of my mobile phone's case, and looked to the star-strewn ceiling. In that moment, I felt Tiffany in my arms, her body pressed against mine as we slow danced together, cheek to cheek.
Seconds later, I felt the love of my life wrenched from my embrace by a monstrous force. I watched her hazel eyes flare in panic as she was pulled off the edge of a cliff. I lunged forward, narrowly missing her outstretched hand as she… fell?
No. That wasn’t right at all. Gravity never got the chance to pull her into the sickening fall I expected to see.
“Hondo, You told the cops I shot her. I didn’t have a gun.”
“To be fair to Hondo,” Quinn said. “We were both used to you bringing a firearm to all our camping adventures.”
“Tiffany hated guns, though. She wouldn’t let me bring one along.”
“Seriously, Charlie,” Hondo started as though negotiating for me to release hostages. “You didn’t push that poor girl, did you?”
“Asshole, why aren’t you telling the whole story?” I growled.
“Whoah whoah whoah, pal! I aint the one been locked in a loonie bin.”
“No, you just conveniently forgot to tell anyone else what happened before Tiffany disappeared!”
“Lights on, Alexa!” Quinn shouted at nobody.
“Yo Quinn, stop messing with your robot blowjob queen and tell me wha- what this asshole’s trippin’ about?”
“Yes, Quinn. Why don’t you explain to our forgetful friend over there why you’ve been hosting these tea parties?”
Quinn folded his arms across his chest. Other than that, he was as inscrutable as a damn sphinx.
“God damnit, guys!” I bellowed. “We’ve been gathering off and on for over twenty fucking years since that night, yet nobody’s had the balls to talk about it!” I glared from Quinn to a stunned Hondo and back again. “Why the fuck is that?”
The silence that greeted my dramatic remark just further outraged me.
I whirled toward our host. “Quinn, are you telling me that all this…” I jabbed my index finger toward the ceiling and whirled it around. “Has nothing to do with what we saw up there that night? Why do we have to sit here and feel like we’re floating in the middle of the Milky Way?
“Well, I am a professor of astrophysics,” Quinn said with a winning smile. “My decor seems in keeping with my profession.”
“And your chosen profession wasn’t inspired by that night?”
“My fascination with the principles of motion and its guiding forces has always existed.”
“So that’s what led you to apply as a research scientist for SETI? Or was it because you still can’t explain why search and rescue never found Tiffany’s body?”
“Are you two speaking English anymore?” Hondo laughed at the slurring in his own words. “What the ffffffffuckisseti?”
“The Search For Extraterrestrial Intelligence,” Quinn and I said simultaneously.
“Extra what’s it? You two mean like aliens and sssshiit?”
I sighed. “You brought your flask, didn’t you, Hondo?”
“G-guilty aaaassss chaarrged.” Hondo burped, then turned awkwardly to Quinn. “Are you fuggin nuts, lookin’ for that thing?”
“I never even told anyone I’d made an inquiry.” Quinn slumped in his chair, burying his head in his hands. “Balls.”
“So you do remember what we saw, Hondo!”
“Boom! Crash! Lightning! Big, black, scary triangle in the fuggin sky?” Hondo pointed to the ceiling. “Followed us?”
“It chased us to the cliff’s edge, you son of a bitch!” I exclaimed. “All this time, you… why didn’t you ever talk about it?”
“Same reason the nutty professor over there prolly didn’t tell his egghead friends.” Hondo turned to me, suddenly serious. “Didn’t wanna end up locked away in a nnnuthouse like you.”
Quinn nodded, rubbing his temples. “The Tactless Toerag over there has a point, Charlie. No respectable scientist would dare risk his career even speculating too much on such a taboo subject.”
“But to be clear, Quinn,” I prodded. “You saw it too?”
Quinn threw up his hands. “I thought the damned thing had blasted your poor Tiffany off the cliff.”
I dug my iphone out of my pocket and gently placed it on the table, screen up. I made sure both Quinn and Hondo were looking.
“Did either of you send me a text message during the last week?”
Both sported furrowed brows as they shook their heads.
“So, none of you know anything at all about British soul bands from the nineteen-eighties?”
“What on earth?” Quinn queried.
“Chaaaarlie, did you take a few swigs from my flask, man?” Hondo chuckled. “It’s cool if you did just… wow.”
“Nevermind,” I said. I didn’t have the slightest idea what to do next. I wanted so badly to solve the mystery of that text, but what was that in comparison to the horrible, unsolvable mystery of Tiffany’s disappearance?
The spiralling silence that followed told me what I needed to know. We’d come as far as we could as a trio of traumatized men, admitting that we’d all seen and been chased by a fucking UFO some twenty-two years ago. But none of us was ready to accept the possibility of having witnessed an alien abduction.
It was too much, even for me.
I snatched my iphone from the table, accessed the mystery text, and prepared to delete it from my life.
Before I could press the red trash can button on my screen, the chords of a familiar song filled the entire house through Quinn’s speakers.
And then, I heard the first melodious words to Tiffany’s favorite song ring out.
“Holding back the yeeeeeaaarrs…”
“Quinn, you asshole,” I snarled, whirling toward him.
“Don’t look at me! I didn’t ask Alexa to play music at all.” Quinn recoiled at my glare. “I don’t know this bloody song!”
My phone rang and vibrated. I looked at the screen. The caller was Kia.
“Sis? What’s up?” I answered.
“Charlie, don’t open the door!” Kia said, her voice trembling.
“Kia, what the fuck are you talking about?”
“It’s impossible, Charlie. It’s… her. She… it…she’s fucking walking up to Quinn’s front door! I can see her from my car! She…”
“I’ll keeeep hoooooollldiing oooonn!”
Those words rang through the house, piercing my soul before three loud, distinct knocks sounded from the other side of Quinn’s front door.
“What’s the name of this band?!” Hondo shouted as all three of us darted toward the front of Quinn’s house. “I like them.”
Without a second thought, I nearly threw open Quinn’s door.
“Simply Red,” Tiffany Rogers answered as I stared, agog. “Simply Red.”