Aphelion Issue 244, Volume 23
October 2019
 
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Night Owls

by P. B. Hampton



Carl Raker arrived at the small town of Noah's Peak around noon. The closest airport had been over 200 miles away and Raker had waited until morning to make the drive despite his ten PM landing on the previous evening. It had taken some doing, his wait, because a car had been ready for him at the airport and he had been anxious to get on the road. Still, he had decided to sleep a few fitful hours before striking out after the sun was well up in a clear blue sky. Actually, although he hadn't intended it, he had enjoyed the drive along bucolic, tree-lined roads.

Raker neither passed nor met any cars on his journey.

He headed straight for what appeared to be the only eatery in town. Noah's Peak formed a solid township of single-story buildings; he crossed railroad tracks and waited at two traffic lights before reaching The Daily Bread Restaurant.

Inside were four customers: a young man and woman occupying a booth and two guys sitting on stools at the counter. A waitress looked up from behind the counter and a fry-chef peered from his kitchen as a bell above the door jingled to announce Raker's entrance.

He eased into the first booth he came to, nodding a hello. "Is this okay?"

The waitress, a well-built woman who was probably nearing 30 or so, was not a bad looker. In fact, the closer she got, he realized she looked damned fine, thank you very much!

"I charge ten-cents per step," she said, "sit wherever you want."

Raker counted as she fetched a menu and brought it to his table. "I owe you a dollar-eighty already." He smiled, certain she had been joking, although the other customers were clustered near her station.

"Lord above, a man who can count past ten. That's worth a 50-cent discount right there." She didn't smile, eyeing him with uncluttered curiosity. She had remarkable eyes, almond-shaped, with irises the color of cornflowers. Good skin, too. Well, now, the closer Raker looked the more beauty he realized. He took the menu, flipping it open.

"Coffee?" she asked.

He shot a quick glance to the coffee station: good 14 steps there and back. "Sure," he shrugged, "why not?"

"About time I got a big spender in here." She was back in a few moments with a steaming mug. "You want cream with that?"

Her face was deadpan, causing Raker to once again wonder if she were actually charging him by the step. He looked at his fellow diners, hoping for a smile or a shake of a head. All he got was ignored.

"Nah, I like it black." he lied.

"You need a minute?"

"No, no, don't take off. Umm, I'll have the cheeseburger plate, hold the onions."

"Got a big date later?"

"Huh? Oh, nah, onions just don't like me is all."

"All right, hold the onions." She jotted on a green order pad. "You got family here in Noah's Peak? This place is not on the way to anywhere."

"Huh uh, no family or anything like that. The reason I'm here is pretty boring, actually." Raker hooked a finger in his mug, wishing for cream to smooth his coffee.

"You never know. Hold that thought." She paced to clip his order on a rotating device which hung at the kitchen window. On her return trip she dipped into a plastic tub and brought out two little containers of cream. "You look like a cream sort of guy.", she explained as she placed them beside his mug. "The gratuity rate is 15-percent or whatever you can afford, so you can quit counting."

"Thank goodness," Raker smiled, "I was up to four bucks."

She almost smiled, just almost, before he turned his attention to coloring his coffee. "We're at the end of the line." she informed him. "Those railroad tracks you crossed up the road there run into a pile of rocks where a mountain fell down. That looks like a rental car you're driving which means you came from the airport in Remington. You say the reason you're here is pretty boring; the last stranger who said that is the one who knocked down that mountain. So, you see, I really need to know why you're here."

Raker was only a bit nonplussed. He got this type of inquisition, perhaps a touch more subtly, in many places his job took him. "I'm an ornithologist."

"You study birds?"

"Yes, yes, I do."

"And you've heard about owls around Noah's Peak that are the size of small children, isn't that right?"

He frowned. "Well, I heard that this particular county has one of the largest owl populations on the east coast. Noah's Peak is the only town, and this might be the only restaurant, in the county. So, here I am."

"That's it? That's how you respond to claims of people seeing owls the size of a ten-year-old boy?"

"Well, yeah, because someone is exaggerating."

She was nailing him with those blue eyes, hammering the image of her flawless face right between his eyes. God, she was beautiful! How could he have missed such a thing on his first appraisal?

"I've seen one."

She raised her soft voice an octave. "Jim Anderson!'

"Yep, I had one cross the road right in front of my truck. That thing had to be at least four feet tall." The speaker was the larger of the two men sitting at the counter. He wore faded jeans, a plaid shirt, and a cap which advertised a brand of fertilizer pulled down low above his nose.

"Eddie Pullman!"

She had not removed her wide eyes from Raker's face.

The guy next to the fertilizer cap wore a pair of tinted spectacles, clunking his mug to the counter. "Jim is absolutely right. I was in the truck with him and I saw it, too. It turned its head all the way around to look back at us as it disappeared into the woods."

"Full dark, I suppose," Raker suggested without taking his eyes off his waitress, who seemed to have him under a mild spell. Good Lord she was hot!

"Yeah, but I had my headlights on high-beam, too!" the owner of the truck exclaimed. "Neither me or Eddie got any reason to make up seein' one of those things. Hell, we wished we hadn't!"

"Amen," his partner concurred.

"How many people have seen them?" He tilted his head...had she just offered herself to him with those striking eyes?

The couple at the booth raised their hands without taking their eyes off plates full of food. The guy at the grill poked his head around the entrance to the kitchen, showing a clean white cap. "I've seen two of ‘em together."

Raker finally broke eye contact with his siren and sampled his coffee with a careful sip, deciding to add more cream. "So, are you telling me to be careful, or what?"

The pretty waitress seemed to be measuring him, trying to retrain his eyes, then slipped a glance to her compatriots. The guys at the counter had turned on their stools to face him. The couple remained aloof but he could sense they were bending an ear as the cook leaned on elbows to demonstrate his interest at the counter.

"Are you aware," his waitress said, "that owls are used to screen memories? Or, more precisely, I should ask if you are aware that people are suggested into recalling an owl whenever they have actually been in contact with an extraterrestrial being?"

Raker blinked, leaning away on his seat. "Ha! Oh, okay, I see, let's have a little fun with the stranger in town."

No one was laughing as they stared; no one was even offering a glint of humor.

"Look, Miss...ah..."

"Tremaine, Jolena. Everyone calls me Leeny, those that I trust enough to count as friends. And what is your name, Mr. Birdwatcher?"

"Raker, Carl, and nobody calls me Carly." He was trying to create a hint of levity, wishing to have the words back as soon as they hit the air.

"Uh huh." She frowned. "You heard about our owls from Leland Mathis."

Raker scowled, beginning to realize these folks were not at all foolish. They had been expecting him, well, expecting someone because their call for help had been put into appropriate hands. "How do you know what Leland does? I don't think his mother knows his business, to be frank."

"We are old friends, Leland and I, special friends." She did not blush at this disclosure; everyone there knew what special friends meant. "I can reach him anytime I need to, and he said he would refer our case to someone who handles this sort of thing."

In her wide blue eyes, just behind that daring stare, Raker spotted a nudge of desperation. The citizens of Noah's Peak were apparently nearing their breaking points and Jolena Tremaine had apparently been appointed as their spokesperson.

"Has anyone been hurt by them?"

"Other than being scared out of our wits? No, but some of us are showing scars that we don't remember having a reason to show."

Raker considered a short list of options. Damned...what had she called him...Leland Mathis and his hot pants! That particular agent was in for a burnt steak the next time he and Melissa came over for dinner. "What kind of scars?"

Jolena Tremaine lifted her skirt without hesitation to expose a spot well above her knee. There was nothing brazen in her actions, nor was she demure; she just wanted to show him what kind of scar she was talking about. And, oh brother, what perfect skin she showed when she pulled up that skirt! One would need a magnifying glass to spot a blemish, so exceptional was her epidermis, but the area she pointed out with a long, slender finger was obviously marred and relatively fresh.

Her leg carried a classic scoop mark. The Greys had been taking their tissue samples from that region of the outer thigh for decades. Raker leaned in for a closer look, noting the flawless muscle tone possessed by this lovely creature. No one in the diner offered the first crass remark and the moment was ripe for a witty aside. These folks were very serious about their problem and would not find humor anywhere near it.

Miss Tremaine put her skirt down. "Have you ever seen anything like that?"

Damn, another opening for a one-liner and Raker wasn't about to touch it. "Yes, it is very common. Is anyone suffering nosebleeds?"

Her face relaxed with blessed relief as she realized he was there to help. "Yes, a few of our children have been having very bad nosebleeds."

"All right." Raker nodded. "Well, I guess you had me pegged from the moment I walked through that door. Yes, I work for an agency within our government that deals with problems like the one you're having here in Noah's Peak." He sipped from his mug as he looked around the restaurant. "Will you answer a couple of questions for me, answer them honestly?"

"Why wouldn't I be honest? God, we just want some help!"

The young man and woman at the booth were now turned in his direction. Raker noticed they had not touched their food, a discovery which did not surprise him at all. "Some things are just hard to talk about." he shrugged.

She swept a willowy arm to include the others who were no longer detached from the conversation. "We'll tell you anything we know."

"Okay. Are there any signs of citizens losing their mental facilities? I don't mean like running down the street naked or anything like that. It would be more of a silent madness, more withdrawn. Have you noticed anything like that?"

The dining room became very quiet. "Miss Tremaine? I warned you this might be hard to discuss. Is anyone showing signs of mental illness?"

"Yes," she sighed, "and it may seem to be getting worse."

"Very well…Any suicides?" Raker was all business now; he was in his element.

She blinked as worry began building behind those pretty blue eyes. He had warned her, fair and square, that he would require honesty. "I can't help this town if you don't talk to me. I need to know, are you having any suicides?"

"Yes," she whispered, pushing a strand of raven-colored hair behind an ear as she turned to the young couple. "Cindy...honey..."

The young woman stood from her side of the booth. She had been sitting with her back to Raker, obscured by the high bench-seat. He was shocked to observe how ravaged she appeared: hair hanging in strands, eyes sunken and dark, sharp collarbones jutting above the dirty tee-shirt she wore. "Daddy killed himself." Her voice was soft and scratchy, as if maybe she had been screaming quite a lot lately. "He wanted to take my kids with him but I was able to get away with them before he could do it."

"Why would he want to hurt his grandchildren?"

"He said the owls are devils that eat people's fear and he didn't want his babies to ever feel the way he felt. God, he was so crazy there at the end! Momma hasn't been out of her room since that night, just staring and staring."

"I'm sorry." Raker said. "Have you seen the owls?"

The bedraggled young woman looked around the room sheepishly, probably wishing to stay off the lunatic list herself. "I think so...I dreamed they were trying to pull my kids through the roof of our house and I fought to hold them down on the bed. That had to be a dream, didn't it?"

Raker shook his head. "When this starts, it is very hard to tell dreams from reality. I know everyone in here, as well the rest of the townspeople, think something terribly unusual is happening in Noah's Peak. While it's not wholly commonplace, I can assure you we have been through this before." He turned to Jolena Tremaine. "Is there a place where we can assemble the citizens?"

"Yes, yes, the high school's gymnasium! What do you think, Jim, you think it will hold everybody?"

Jim studied from beneath his fertilizer cap. "No, not the whole town, but it'll hold everybody who will come out of their houses. Most, Mr. Raker, have got to where they won't stick their heads out for any reason."

"That is understandable, sir. As I said, this is nothing new to us. The gymnasium sounds good; can you round up everybody who will come by tonight?"

"Damn right we can! Come on, Eddie, we'll get the gang over at Barney's to help us out."

"Yep." Eddie stood, reaching for his wallet.

"No, no, it's on the house today, guys." The gorgeous waitress made a dismissive wave of her hands. "Go! Get everyone!"

They hustled away as the ragged girl, Cindy, turned to the young man who shared her booth. "We better get the kids, honey. It's time to feed Momma anyway."

"Okay." The guy seemed in a lot better shape than his wife although he was showing heavy fatigue around his eyes, being worn down like everyone else. "Mister," he stopped by Raker's booth on their way out, "you have no idea how bad we need you here." His eyes were small, clouded by a lack of sleep, forcing Raker to look away.

"Yes, son, we do know. The agency has been aware of the growing problem in Noah's Peak for some time now. That's why I was sent here."

"You're not afraid of them, are you, the owls?"

"No, they don't scare me at all. Go on, son, get your kids." Raker gritted his teeth, attempting to let the boy go on, but suddenly stood and followed the young man out the door. He whispered in the young man's ear, getting an open-mouthed look for his effort, and then leaned in to whisper again. The boy stared only for another moment before hurrying to catch his wife who was getting into their old car.

Jolena Tremaine and her cook were the only two remaining. "What was that all about?" she wondered aloud.

"Nothing," Raker replied, "just trying to reassure the kid is all."

For the first time since he walked through that door, she tried on an appealing smile for him. "You really want that cheeseburger, or was that just a stall to see what you could learn in here?"

"Well, I certainly didn't have a chance to spy very much, now did I? You had all your people in place, everyone waiting on their marks and hitting their cues. I have to admit, that was very impressive. And, yes, I want that cheeseburger, because I'm starving. I always get hungry when I come to save a town."

She laughed and it was a wonderful sound when accompanied by those striking blue eyes! That damned Leland...his Melissa was a doll but Raker could understand why his fellow agent might get sidetracked for a while. "Could I get that burger to go? I need a shower and I've got to find a place to do it. I didn't see a motel..." He let the hopeful lilt of his voice hang in the air between them.

"There's no need to hunt. You can use my shower," she offered.

"Are you sure? I wouldn't want to put you out, Miss Tremaine."

"It won't put me out at all, Carl. And you may call me Leeny." She turned to the guy behind the counter. "Wrap up Mr. Raker's burger, Stevie, then close up for the day. You can help Jim and Eddie, okay, just bring everybody you can to that meeting tonight."

"All right, Leeny. You gonna be okay?"

She turned an open appraisal to Raker, showing him doubtless eyes. ‘Oh, I'm pretty sure I'll be in good hands."

####

The man calling himself Raker peeked through a slit in the closed gymnasium doors, estimating the greater portion of the town's population was packed in there. Usually, whenever he held one of these meetings, many tagged along who couldn't recall having had an experience although they very likely had done so. He saw Leeny sitting on the bottom row, appearing positively radiant as she chatted with others around her.

He suffered a pang of guilt which lasted precisely one second.

Goodness, but oh my, had he enjoyed that shower at her cottage! He had also been thrilled by the roll on her bed, by the two of them rubbing around on her carpet, that romp around the couch, and then back for another shower. Jolena Tremaine now had two special friends at the agency...which was about two more than his bosses allowed.

They were waiting for him so he put on his business face as he reached into a jacket pocket and withdrew a device approximately the size of a pack of matches. He thumbed a little button on the side of the unit which started a green light to flashing. The agent looked around, bending to tuck the pulsing instrument behind an old radiator. He straightened his jacket and hurried out the back door to his waiting car. He calmly pulled away, gaining speed as he got on the main road, and reached for his cell phone to thumb a few numbers.

"Good evening," a polite voice responded after picking up on the other end, "PrimeView Apartments. How may I direct your call?"

"This is Big Daddy. Today's password is Midnight Sun."

The voice responded: "Today's reply is Morning Moon. This line is now secure"

"Very well," the agent being called Raker said, "my voice recognition test words are Aqua Spandex. I say again, Aqua Spandex."

He waited for the verification which would keep the line open.

"What's up, Big Daddy? We've been waiting to hear from you."

"I had to, um, do a full assessment. We have an infestation; Noah's Peak has been colonized. The light is up and it is full green, I repeat, the light is full green."

"We copy a green light. Ten-four, Big Daddy, check you later."

The agent closed his phone and dropped it on the seat. Damned Greys, always trying to slip around and make babies! Hell, we're helping them with the hybrids but they want to have their own versions all to themselves. His was not a pleasant duty but, by God, they had to be spanked every once in a while or they would overrun our population!

He did take a selfish dollop of satisfaction when realizing he had saved one human family.

Thinking of that model, Jolena, made him a bit sad despite his hard-as-nails professionalism. He could offer firsthand testimony that she had everything a human woman should have, including a desire for sex (although her drive wasn't wanton; it was more like a programmed consideration), but her eyes were not right! They just couldn't seem to get our eyes, those windows to our souls, to look like the real things...too bad, too, because they had incredible intelligence and a damned good work ethic!

WHUMP!!! A bright flash lit up the horizon in his rearview mirror, followed by a rumbling concussion which lifted him off the seat. Noah's Peak no longer existed. The railroad had been blocked months before, all roads leading in had been closed, and now they had suffered a horrible explosion due to a faulty gas line which ran through the center of town. The new maps to come would not show such a place nor would any routes be marked which ran through that part of the state. He knew, from past jobs, that there would be no family from out-of-town. Oh well, he sighed, strictly business, nothing more, nothing less.

He raced from the fiery sky, realizing he never did get to eat anything. He was hungry, craving a cheeseburger as he sped down the darkened road.

He did not see any giant owls.

THE END


© 2011 P. B. Hampton

Bio: P.B. Hampton is a warehouse worker from western North Carolina who has been married to a fine woman for 38 years. His second love is the tricky craft of stringing together prose to create a series of mental images. Perry's story Bedtime for Roswell appeared in the June edition of Aphelion.

E-mail: P. B. Hampton

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