If the Sky Should Fall
by Mike Driver
Two a.m. Texaco time; caught between the middle of nowhere and the back of beyond with only the headlights of rushing semis, lost sales reps and an endless landscape of desolate moorland for company.
My name is Mark Mitchell and I'm twenty-one years old. I work the midnight-to-six shift at the twenty four hour service station on the old road that runs over the moors. Back in the day this was a thriving thoroughfare, we even had a neon-lit steel-tubed fake American Diner, jacked up on a patch of scrubland, across the way. Not any more. The new motorway has superseded us; it's a roaring, bustling, shiny, macadam-topped six-lane paradise compared to our rutted pitiful byway. As a consequence we have very few customers, which is just as well -- we offer very poor service and we pride ourselves on insolence and a lack of customer care that in the right conditions can be heart-warming.
I man the cashier box where customers pay. Right now I'm staring out across a deserted fluorescent lit forecourt, a pen poised over the back of another green foolscap invoice wondering what message I should write tonight. I often write messages for drivers departing the fuel bays, from friendly 'have a nice day -- dickhead' notes for the more abrupt customers to pleas to be saved from phantom hostage situations. I hold them against the broad pane of glass that faces the forecourt, I do it for my own amusement just to relieve the boredom, but no one ever reacts. Maybe they can't read them because of the way the headlamp beams bounce off the glass, more likely they don't care what I think of them or about the fate of a couple of minimum wage gas monkeys. I just write the notes and try not to dwell on the impotency of my highest form of expression.
You may have guessed by now this isn't my chosen career. God forbid I should end up in a place like this full time. I'm in the final year of a degree in environmental studies. In a couple of years, if I work hard, I should have a high paying job, (doing what isn't exactly clear to me), but right now I should be writing a groundbreaking essay on the impact of man upon the ecosystem and, based upon my least favourite lecturers lunatic theory, the ability of the ecosystem to respond.
So here I am, supposedly at my mental and physical peak, a twenty one year old, healthy, intelligent male. The world should be at my feet. Instead I live in the permanent shadow of Debt Mountain (which, for tourists to this region, overlooks Shit Creek). I have no female companionship, not unless you count the kind that have staples in their midriffs, no disposable income and I'm somewhat lacking in the life direction stakes. On the other hand I have a credit card, with usurious rates and a dumb-ass night job in a godforsaken service station, which pays a pittance -- so I guess you would call that a kind of balance.
It should be a consolation that at least I'm not here alone. I'm fortunate to be kept company by two of the finest minds this country has ever produced -- I jest of course. Austin and Devon: the Chuckle Brothers, without the wit and brio. I really must have been a shit in a previous life. And to make matters worse the unfeasibly thick text book before me has been stuck on the opening page for twenty minutes and I'm re-reading the same paragraph still trying to wrest a sense of meaning from it.
It's at this point I look up from my book and see Austen has sloped over. "Whatcha' readin' for?" he says.
Austen is the larger and brighter of the two primates with whom I share this cage. Austen is twenty-seven going on sixteen, a tall skinny length of unrepressed adolescence with a sneer for a smile and a narcissus complex. Austen leads an alternative lifestyle, if you can call injecting neat Pernod in your ankle veins for the "rush" and genital piercings alternative.
He pulls at the book in my hand tilting it downward towards him, peering at the words.
"It's for an assignment." I reply.
"Homework?" he asks, his lip already curling upwards in a wry smile.
"Something like that," I say, returning to my reading.
"Never did homework. If you don't do it they stop giving it to you. Have you tried that? College lad like you should be able to figure these things out." He gives me a wink.
Like I said, Austen is the brighter of the two.
Devon is sweeping up at the back. He has been standing over the same two-foot square patch of ground for nearly twenty minutes. Some days Devon drives the brush, some days the brush drives Devon. Tonight it's a standoff. Devon's eyes are vacant and fixed on a point in space three feet in front on him that holds him mesmerised.
Austen catches me looking and joins me in staring at Devon and we stand there in tableaux for several minutes, us looking at Devon and Devon looking at nothing.
I go back to my book and Austen carries on mooching round the store. I'm not really clear on Austen's role. When Mr Garvey gave me the job he told me that I would have two people working for me. Devon who he said wasn't all there, but a good worker, and Austen, who he said I needed to watch. Well, I watched Austen nearly every night and I still couldn't figure out what he did. Devon swept up, emptied the rubbish bins, cleaned up the forecourt and refilled the shelves. He didn't do any of these things quickly, or particularly well, but he did them nonetheless. Austen, on the other hand, spent a great deal of time working oil into his spiky black hair in the customer toilets until he had a set of spikes on his head so sharp they could skewer cubes of cheese. Now and again he would rejoin us in the store and artfully rearrange a stack of promotional biscuits into a pyramid or line up the edges on the cornflake packets so that they were all square to the shelf; but mostly he did nothing.
Still who am I to criticise? I spend all my night behind the counter of a huge plasti-glass box speaking to people through a Perspex grill, staring out through the veils of mist and mizzle that sweep the moor to the dusky green glow on the distant horizon from the mill town where I was born.
The grill is open tonight and Austen is leaning through it to talk to me. It's against company policy to open the grill. There are lots of rules and I figure most of them are just guidelines anyway; besides, the cabin is nothing more special than a big goldfish bowl and the reason the grill is open is because the bowl bears the unmistakable stench of ammonial body odour from Big Brian who runs the day shift.
Big Brian has a personal hygiene problem. Even Devon notices, shuffling hurriedly out of Brian's orbit whenever he strays too close. As a subtle hint, Mr Garvey, the station manager, presented Big Brian with a box of soap and toiletries as a Christmas gift. Big Brian sold them at a car boot sale, 'unwanted gift' it read on the scrap of cardboard he rested beside them.
So the grill is open, not that it is doing a great deal of good.
Austen leans back from the grill and begins to pace around the store. He reads the greeting cards, laughing out loud at the ones that mention farts, or show any kind of nudity, before he begins to scan the in-store DVD hire unit. Three shelves of films, nothing newer than four years old, and very few that had ever seen the inside of a cinema. Even for straight to video, they are low calibre.
"Seen this?" asks Austen holding one of the titles towards me.
I can't read the title clearly because of the reflection from the strip lighting on the cassette box but the picture tells me enough. I say no.
"Alien Blood Suckers," he reads -- slowly. "A classic," he adds.
"What's it about?" I ask.
Austen gives me his two-minute review:
"These aliens come down and suck out people's brains. But there's one bit, right, it's just brilliant. There is this girl in the shower and you see quite a bit of her tits and that." He gesticulates with his hands to help my imagination. "And this alien slime comes up through the plughole. Anyway she doesn't notice and it starts to suck her blood out through this scratch she has in her ankle, that she didn't even realise she had, and her body gets dissolved into this disgusting bloody jelly and she just collapses. Then, and this the best bit right, well not better than the tits, but you know, all that's left is this floppy pile of skin and hair and one eye, just looking round and blinking."
"What happened to the other one?"
Austen is clearly fazed by this.
"Dunno," he says, furrowing his brow till his thick eyebrows touch, lost in thought at this ocular mystery.
Devon, who had been watching us intently, digs around in the pockets of his coveralls and pulls out a small metallic object. He hugs it close to his chest as if it were a private treasure. His soft features, like unkneaded dough, squirm in discomfort as he rubs the metal tenderly.
"What you got there, Devon?" I ask, wary of Devon coming into contact with any sharp objects on my watch.
"A-a-alien dropped it," he says simply.
To say I am nonplussed is to put the situation mildly.
"Can I see it?" I ask, reaching for the piece of twisted metal Devon caresses in his grubby fingers.
"S-s-spaceship," he says, nodding conspiratorially, soft strands of fine blond hair bumping against his broad forehead.
He hands me an angled metal bracket; it has three drill holes along each side, each scarred and pulled slightly where the drill bit has slipped, the edges are tinged with rust and black slime. If it is from an alien spaceship then their grasp of metal work is even more rudimentary than my own.
"Where'd this come from?"
"F-f-from up-p th-there."
Devon points upwards, indicating the sky, but tonight the clouds are hung lower than a suspended ceiling, just an endless grey slab about thirty feet above our heads.
I handle the bracket again, the slime feels like oil. If it's from anywhere then it's likely to be the bracketing that holds the canopied forecourt roof in place. I sigh to myself, wondering if the rusted metal is a sign the roof may fall in at some point. I'm supposed to fix shit like this but the prospect of climbing a skeletal ladder in darkness up into the shadowed recesses of the roof, thirty feet above a concrete floor at night holds no appeal for me. I decide immediately I'm not going up there. If I remember I'll tell Mr Garvey. If the roof was going to fall it would have fallen by now I reason and inadvertently I give myself a first thought for my essay. If all the mavens of doom are predicting such terrible disasters why aren't they here already? Then thoughts of New Orleans, images of crashing glaciers and freak hundred year weather systems filter through my mind and I start to feel uncomfortable with my own implacable logic.
Austen grabs the object from my hands.
"This is bullshit," he says waving the bracket in Devon's face.
"N-n-not b-b-b," splutters Devon caught on a percussive b that's never going to arrive. "S-s-saw the alien ow-out of it."
Then he stops suddenly, realising he has said something he never intended.
Austen immediately howls with laughter.
"You seen an alien Dev,"
"Y-y-y--. Real one," stammers Devon.
"Ha. Last alien you saw was that mini cab driver that dropped you at home last week. Only aliens round here are fucking illegal aliens." Austen laughs hard at his own racial pun.
"Where did you see an alien?" I ask, curious to see where this is going.
"That was your dad," says Austen. "Funny looking thing, head like a lightbulb. Said your tea was ready and could you get back to the spaceship before it went cold."
"F-f-f-fuck off," replies Devon tartly, if not succinctly.
"Where then? Exactly where did you see it?" challenges Austen.
"Ow-ow-outside," says Devon pointing even more emphatically.
"N-n-no," says Devon peevishly.
"Because you can't."
I watch Devon falter for a moment then seemingly change his mind, step out through the sliding glass panel doors at the front of the station and begin to walk purposefully around the back of the building.
Austen gives me a wild look, grins, and sets off after him.
I shout just as he passes through the frame of the doorway into darkness but the word 'No' just echoes out into the empty night.
There is no place quieter or lonelier than a deserted service station in the darkest hours before dawn. The CCTV with its rows of empty images gives the feeling that you are the only person alive on the planet. I look at the banks of cold black and white TV screens. Nothing. I look out of the window at the harsh lit concrete forecourt with, its shiny smears of oil, and the unforgiving darkness of the moor, a constant sea of black beyond. Nothing. Even the shallow lights of the town beyond the rise seem darker than usual. So I stare expectantly at the doorway. And in the quiet and stillness an anticipatory jolt of chill lightning rides my spine down to my heels.
Ten minutes later Austen returns alone.
"You are not fucking going to believe this," he says breathless and excited.
I eye him suspiciously. "Believe what?"
"Come on -- you've got to see."
"I can't leave here." Why a corporate conscience should strike at this moment I have no idea.
"Come on, just for a minute."
"Austen. I can't leave here. What if someone comes?"
"I'll take over," he says
"No you won't," I say sharply, vigorously shaking my head.
He doesn't seem to notice the put down.
"Come on, two minutes! You never seen anything like this, I promise you."
I weighed up my options. We have seen the last customer almost an hour ago and at close to three AM on a Tuesday morning it's unlikely that anyone will come along at that precise moment.
"Okay," I say. "But just two minutes -- and this better be good.
"Oh it's good," replies Austen. "You won't fucking believe how good."
I follow Austen around the back of the petrol station and down a steep muddy bank which we navigate by hanging on to the emaciated saplings that are planted all along its length. The night is as cold and as black as my mood as we drop into a natural hollow illuminated only by the back flush of light from the building now above us.
"Austen, where are you?" I hiss.
Austen reappears at my side.
"Boo," he says his hands darting playfully at my neck.
"Wanker," I offer back, my heart climbing back down from my oesophagus.
I peer in to the darkness and I can just make out the hazy shapes of Devon and Austen bent at the waist peering at something lying on a rough patch of turf beside the sump tanks.
Devon points with a stick at a spot on the ground.
"What is it?" I ask, edging closer and straining my eyes to make out anything that might be there. In the gloom the patch of tangled grass before me, blackened and stained with oil waste, appears completely empty.
"Do it," says Austen from behind me.
Devon pokes at the ground with the stick and something shimmers. A translucent wash ripples through the blades of grass, like a fish surfacing, flickering then vanishing again in the darkness.
"What the fuck was that?" is all I can manage.
"Fucking ET," says Austen.
"That's not an alien," I say, "That's some..." My voice trails away as in truth I have no idea what this is.
"....Kind of ..." I'm unable to finish my answer, the thing before me looks more like black oiled quartz than any animal I have seen.
Then I realise I can't see it anymore, the creature, whatever it is, has vanished again.
I strain my eyes as Devon pokes at the spot again with his stick, the shimmer returns and as it dies I can make out the imprint of a small black shape in the sward. My eyes accustom more rapidly to the gloom and now I can make out small regular movements, the shimmering black fish scales, the rise and fall of a tiny chest panting, silver and grey flickers, as the tiny creature pulses with life before me.
"Dev, where did you find this?" I try, but fail, to keep a ridiculously high note of rising panic from my voice.
"It d-d-drinks here," he says slowly, pointing at a sluice of oil that runs from the back of the tanks into a viscous pool.
I lean closer but I have lost sight of the creature once more. I shift my line of sight and in my peripheral vision I catch a clear glimpse of it lying in the grass; curled up, foetal, its small three fingered hands reaching towards us, its eyes wide with fear, set in blackened features that look like they have been carved from coal.
Then the creature disappears amongst the shadows.
I hear Austen's voice behind me. "Got something for you Mister Fucking Alien," he announces.
I turn in time to see him shoulder a large rock above his head before dropping it on the place where the alien lay.
There is a bone-numbing crunch. The rock teeters then slips to one side. A high mewling whine fills the air.
"What the fu..." I struggle.
"Fucking aliens," screams Austen in my face. "Shouldn't fucking come here."
The mewling whine grows in magnitude and I clasp my hands to my ears. It has become a full blown banshee's shriek. It all seems so impossibly loud from this insignificant creature and as grating as fingernails on a chalkboard.
Devon clutches his ears. His hands flap like tiny birds, he shrieks himself as blood runs from one ear and he brings the sharpened stick down with a weight that snaps the point of somewhere beneath the creatures spine. The sound stops. Fire bells and church bells continue to careen in my ears and the creature on the ground before us oozes thick black oily blood.
"Good one, Dev," shouts Austen, panting with relief.
Austen picks up an object that I have not noticed beside his feet. It is a small green jerry can. He pours petrol on the now still creature then throws down a lit match. The high pitched squealing fills the air again and this time it's like all the sirens of hell are going off together.
I run. Austen runs. Devon runs. By the time we scramble back up the bank, our hands and knees thick with dirt, there is only a distant ringing in my ears, the octane taste of fuel in my throat and the cloying stink, like a tyre melting slowly on a bonfire.
Austen is laughing. Devon wears a dopey grin in response.
I round on them.
"Why did you do that?" I scream. "What possible reason could you have?"
Austen draws himself up to his full height. "Don't like their kind," he says. "Don't want 'em here."
Devon says nothing. He hangs his head rocking slightly on his heels, his loose grin has slipped.
I feel helpless, sickened by the terrible image of butchery, my gorge rising at the thought of what we have done and the unshakable stink of that burning creature sharp in my nostrils.
I look back at Austen's fervent devil-lit face and catch Devon wiping away a sooty tear from his own crumpled smoke blackened face.
I can't look at them anymore so I turn to face the moors for respite, to catch a breath of clear night air untainted by guilt and burning flesh. It's 2:57 AM, fifty-seven short minutes since this whole thing started. I know night is at its darkest about now; this is the point when the human spirit reaches its lowest ebb and if we are lucky we slink deeper into sleep, but for me there is no waking from this nightmare. Overhead the cloud cover has broken, the misty rain has stopped falling. Now the breeze freshens, cooling the dampness on my cheeks and the moor twinkles to the horizon. My eyes open wider. I blink and try to take in what I see. I screw my eyes closed, hold them, then open wide hoping try to draw in every scintilla of light to adjust my night vision as before me the whole landscape shimmers and flickers like a giant shoal of black fish. As far as the eye can see a sick iridescent darkness rolls in wave after wave, breaking upon the bleak topography, and receding into the distance.
I am only just beginning to absorb this hellish vision when movement above me to the right takes my eye. As I look up the dark creatures begin to descend from the canopied rafters in oily fluid movements, wide unblinking eyes set in ancient anthracite faces. And in those final moments I wonder what the three of us have started.
© 2008 Mike Driver
Bio: Mike lives in Yorkshire with his wife and children. His stories have appeared in print and online in Shimmer, The Harrow, Black Ink Horror, Murky Depths, and in the anthology Strange Stories of Sand and Sea, as well as in Aphelion. His most recent Aphelion entry was By Traditional Means in the September 2007 edition.
E-mail: Mike Driver
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