By Joshua Scribner
Curtis Hillard walked into a clearing of the giant evergreens, and
there it was, his first architectural feat. He’d built it out of
wood from this forest. The two-story cabin wasn’t on par with the
buildings he’d designed in the last decade, but it was solid. He
was confident no creature had been able to break in and take up
residence. He doubted any human had been inside either, because
other than the forest hermits, who were privacy fanatics and would
never invade someone else’s property, no one else would have ventured
this deep into these woods.
Mark, his business partner, had recommended he come here.
“It’s been a year since Kendra died,” he’d said. “Stop drowning
yourself in work and get away for a while, go up to that cabin you used
to talk about. Remember her. Mourn. Then come back.”
Now, looking at the cabin, memories rushed in, but they came too fast and too heavy. He pushed them back.
“Three days of hiking. I need rest before I let that sort of thing start up.”
Curtis went inside. He dropped his backpack and bedroll on the
floor. He opened the heavy wooden shutters to let some light
in. The place was dusty but not as bad he had expected it would
be. He went up to the loft and opened the back window, which
overlooked a downward clearing, then the river, about fifty feet away.
Kendra was there, bathing, pretending she didn’t know he was watching.
He looked away. He wasn’t ready. He had to think of something else.
Luckily, that wasn’t hard. Yesterday, he’d been hiking, when out
of nowhere came a sweeping red light. It rushed right by and
through him without a noticeable impact. He’d wondered what it
could be. He’d even entertained the thought that he didn’t really
see it, that the monotony of the forest had lured him into a hypnagogic
state, causing him to hallucinate.
Last night, he’d turned on his battery-operated radio to drown out the
sounds of crickets while he tried to go to sleep. Instead of
music, he got a newsman talking about the red light, which had been
seen around the world. Some were saying it was a simple
astronomical phenomenon. Some were saying it was a sign from
God. No one had evidence to prove any theory.
Curtis went back downstairs and dug out his radio.
The voice from the radio sounded curious and stunned.
“The spacecraft have appeared in major cities around the world.
At this time, various military forces have surrounded the craft but no
offensive measures have been taken. We don’t know if
communication has been attempted. Right now, it’s a waiting game.”
An hour later, the voice was slightly panicked.
“At this point, the aliens have only attacked military installations
and governmental institutions. Officials are asking everyone to
stay in their homes.”
An hour later, the voice was frantic.
“They’re entering private residences now! There is no official
word on anything. I don’t think there are any officials left to
give any word. All I can say is hide!”
That was the last broadcast.
The radio became eerie, static in most places, silence in a few
others. Curtis finally turned it off. He sat with his mouth
agape. How could this be real? Who was left? Were the
aliens still here? Would they come for him?
Being alone had lost all appeal. He longed for the city: millions
of people, coffee shops, subways, noise other than insects. Was
it really all gone?
He felt the urge to rush back. It had taken him three days to get
here, but he suspected he could make it back in two, maybe one and a
half. He could call Mark immediately. They could meet at
Freddie’s Tavern for beers and talk about the Dellany project, the one
they’d turned down because Mark said he wouldn’t enter another project
with Curtis until Curtis took a vacation. They could start
drawing the next day.
That’s what would be there, not death and destruction, not the end of civilization, not the damn aliens.
Curtis got up.
“Have to find something to do. Can’t let myself go crazy.”
How could he not go crazy, though? Night was coming.
He’d found the box of paperbacks under the cot upstairs. He’d
then remembered Kendra stashing them. She’d never read one,
because she’d never been bored enough here.
They were all romance. They were all outdated. They were
all he had. Since he’d started, he’d only stopped reading to set
up a kerosene lamp. Now he sat on the cot, with the book on the
windowsill, not thinking of anything but the content of a poorly
There was darkness.
Curtis jolted. He stopped breathing. His heart picked up the pace.
Calm down, he thought. The lamp just went out.
The window was open. He tried to blame it on that, but he couldn’t ignore that he hadn’t felt a breeze.
It’s just that the wick burned out. That’s all.
The thought was comforting, for a few seconds, but then the image
came. It was only a few minutes ago that he’d looked at that wick
and seen plenty of white.
Curtis tried telling himself that it was just a stupid little
phenomenon, a flame going out, with probably a dozen possible
explanations that he wasn’t considering.
He fished a pack of matches from his pocket.
That was when he heard the music.
He froze again. This time, the fear was so strong that his stomach seemed to shrink.
The music was faint. It was a familiar tune, but in his panicked mind he could not place it.
He felt the urge to crawl under the cot, but he couldn’t even move to
do that. Whoever was downstairs was probably not familiar with
the cabin. Darkness would give him the advantage. If he
were still, maybe they wouldn’t even notice that he was here.
Curtis wondered if he could really be hearing what he was
hearing. Why would someone or anything come into the cabin
The music finally cut off, but it was another hour before he had the courage to move.
Sleep had come, but there had been no dreams, as if even his
subconscious was afraid to move. Morning light had never looked
so good. He was still very tired, but he didn’t care. With
tight muscles, he got to his feet. His insides felt icy and
random shivers disturbed his body. A face dominated his mind’s
eye. It wasn’t a particular face, just a general human face, and
that was all he wanted; any person would do.
Bart was the quintessential backwoodsman. He was a big grumpy man
with a face covered in thick brown hair. His only redeeming
qualities were that he’d let you stay as long as you needed and his
cabin was by far the closest. It was five hours away by woods,
but less than an hour by river.
In the shed beside the cabin were various things Curtis and Kendra had
brought up over the years. The biggest was the kayak. It
was made of a hard polymer, so it wouldn’t rust or bend like metal and
wasn’t heavy like wood. Forgoing coffee and breakfast, Curtis
took the Kayak to the water.
After about five minutes of paddling, Curtis came more awake. The
woods grew thick and ominous arround the river. The occasional
rustling of branches made him think of how stupid he was not to bring
his gun. He doubted it really mattered, though. From the
sounds of it, the aliens had defeated the US military. What good
was his pistol going to do?
The river was rough in places, but Curtis actually liked that, since it
kept his mind on the river and out of the trees. When the river
was calm, he thought of the face, but now it was a particular
face. It was Bart’s ugly mug.
No matter how much he thought of seeing Bart or how rough the river
got, his spine wouldn’t loosen up and butterflies danced in his
stomach. Pulling the kayak out of the water made him feel a
little better, until he thought of the thick forest he still had to
Curtis rushed around trees and over brush. He heard something not
far away and thought he should stop or at least slow down. He was
making too much noise. He couldn’t slow down, though. The
panic had him. He had to see another person, had to feel normal
Bart’s rustic cabin was usually a five-minute hike from the
river. Curtis was sure he did it in less than three. The
inside of the cabin had its usual dusty smell, but there was something
else, a terrible sweet smell. He found Bart in the back corner,
sitting up on the floor.
The giant of a man was crouched into himself, except his head was
raised. In the corner of his open eyes were little burnt holes,
like whatever had killed him had simply scorched its way into his brain.
Curtis shivered as he backed away from the corpse. He felt his
stomach lurching but was able to hold it until he got outside. He
vomited as he staggered away from the cabin towards the woods. He
fell before he reached the thick of the trees. He tried to get up
but fell again.
The image of Bart’s face had returned to his mind’s eye, but now it had
big open eyes, with charred skin in the corners. Thinking of how
that corpse was still nearby got him to his feet.
The reality of how alone he was sunk in, like a stone settling in his
gut. If they’d made it out this far, then there was probably no
place on Earth safe to hide.
By the time he got home, he was thoroughly exhausted. He told
himself he shouldn’t sleep right now. He should save his
drowsiness for night and use it to escape the dark. It didn’t
matter. He couldn’t resist.
He awoke in the early evening. He cried, thinking of how he would
now have to face the dark. He remembered the book he had been
reading the night before. He lit the kerosene lamp and placed it
on the windowsill.
For hours he read. He felt hunger and he felt thirst, but he
denied these sensations, opting to stay in the false world the book
provided. He stayed this way, until again, the flame of the lamp
His mind shouted at him to hurry. If he hurried, it wouldn’t
happen again. His hand shot into his pocket. It pulled out
the matches. He heard the music.
In the pitch dark, he was frozen. He’d brought the pistol
upstairs with him this time, but right now, it didn’t make him feel
better. He’d have to be able to move to fire the pistol.
He was sure it was the same song as the night before, but he still
couldn’t place it. After about a minute, the music cut completely
off and he was left with total darkness and total quiet.
For hours he sat, waiting for light.
It wasn’t really sleep, but the state Curtis finally entered was enough to make the night pass a little faster.
His skin burned when he awoke. He went out naked and took a bath
in the stream. The water was cold, but it didn’t invigorate him
like it used to. It did take off the past day’s residue and
soothe his skin.
Walking up the slope toward the cabin, Curtis considered whether he
wanted to go on. There was no one left. The aliens were
probably still around. He couldn’t handle another night like the
But could he do it? Could he stick the pistol in his mouth and
end it all? The answer was definitely no. He knew, because
he’d tasted that pistol a few times since Kendra died. He just
couldn’t do it.
The only alternative was to leave the cabin. They might not be
able to localize him if he kept on the move. He could take his
pack and bed role and roam the woods until winter came. Maybe by
then, the aliens would have left, or maybe the bacteria and viruses of
this planet would have killed them off.
Curtis got dressed downstairs. Packing was easy for the most
part. Most of the stuff he needed was in or near his pack.
He thought of the books upstairs. It would be nice to take a few,
to have something to keep him company out there. He went upstairs
to select them. He saw his pistol was still on the cot. He
considered it one last time.
“Nope,” he said out loud. “I don’t have the guts for that.”
He looked out the window and saw the face looking back at him.
It was standing in the river. The current hit it but seemed to
have no impact. Its skin was green and overlapping, like the
tiles of a roof. Its head was narrow on top of a tall body.
The only break in that head was a narrow slit through which a red light
passed horizontally, back and forth.
A beam came from that light and into Curtis’s eyes. Reflexively,
Curtis shut his eyes and covered his face with his hands, but then he
realized the pain wasn’t there. The pain was in his spine, like a
lightning bolt had shot down it. He fell forward, his upper body
crashing through the window screen. He looked forward and saw the
alien getting out of the water. It walked upright, on two
legs. It must have been seven feet tall. It’s arms were
humanlike, but with pincers instead of hands.
Curtis tried to pull back, but could not. The alien’s beam had
nearly paralyzed him. He focused and was able to find movement at
the extremes of his body. He wobbled back and forth on the
windowpane, like some pathetic fish on dry land. He looked and
saw the alien was halfway to him.
Curtis tried to focus harder. A terrible groaning noise came from
somewhere inside of him that he couldn’t even feel. He wobbled
harder. He thought he might be able to wobble off the windowpane
and onto the floor. Maybe he’d be able to reach his gun.
The alien came up right below him. It looked as if all it would
need to do was reach up with those long arms and grab Curtis with its
pincers. Instead, it shot something from its eyes again.
Curtis felt as if he were falling.
There was total darkness, but he could feel her soft naked skin against
his. He could feel her stomach moving up and down and could smell
her sweet scent. Suddenly, from downstairs, music was playing.
He’d thought Kendra was asleep, but she giggled. Then she said,
“It’s okay, scaredy cat. It’s just the radio. I was
listening to it earlier and the reception went out when the rain
came. It must have just cleared up.”
Curtis was embarrassed when he could barely talk. “Okay,” he said with little breath.
Kendra giggled again. “Do you always freeze up when you’re scared.”
“Uh huh,” he said, thinking back on the few times he could remember being this afraid.
She kissed him. “Well, that might work out here. As dark as
it is, you could just be still and the monsters would never find you.”
She kissed him again. “But don’t worry. I’ll always be here to protect you.”
Curtis awoke. He thought of his dream for a little while.
It was actually a perfect replica of an actual night he’d been here
with Kendra. The song that played had been Uninvited by Alanis
Morissette. He was now fairly sure it was the same song that had
played the last two nights.
Curtis was able to open his eyes. He was facing the wall.
He tried to roll but could not. Something grabbed hold and rolled
his body for him.
The alien towered over him. Its pincers were inches away from
Curtis’s body. Curtis tried to move again, but this time he
couldn’t even wobble.
He felt air-deprived, the energy he had not enough to supply his lungs with the breath required for his fearful state.
“I will now conduct a test,” came from the alien, though Curtis couldn’t see where.
“I am equipped with technology that allows me to communicate in a
language that you understand. If I am clear, blink your eyelids
Curtis blinked. He wondered what other tests were to be
conducted. He hoped the alien didn’t have anything like the
classic anal probe in mind.
“I am from a civilization thousands of times older and more advanced
than yours. We travel the universe in search of planets
containing life. We scan each planet for what you call nuclear
The alien paused. Curtis thought of the red light that had started everything.
“In the history of the universe, there is an overwhelming tendency for
planets that have such weapons to use them in the ultimate destruction
of their own planet or to launch them at other planets containing
life. Therefore, when we find such a planet we invade it and kill
the vast majority of the most dominant life form. Approximately
fifty of that life form are allowed to live on and repopulate the
planet, with the knowledge that we will return every hundred years to
scan them again.”
Curtis wondered if he were one of the fifty. He hoped so.
“I was assigned patrol of the river outside of this dwelling. My
vision is similar to yours in that I utilize light to see, but I can
also see without light, if there is motion. The killing phase
ended early this morning. Congratulations. Your survival
skills must be outstanding. I leave you to search out the other
The alien left. Curtis lied there waiting to regain the ability
to move. He lamented all that was lost, but eventually his mind
went to the other survivors. Were they true survivors, people who
had skillfully evaded the aliens, or were they like him and not alone.
E-mail: Joshua Scribner
Comment on this story in the Aphelion Lettercol
Or Return to Aphelion's Index page.