Friday
Apr052019

The Place Between the Trees

MH Rowe


 

The sick man had once dreamed of meeting a person from another planet. As he lay in bed recovering from his illness, mesmerized by the quaking pattern of light the window threw upon the wall, these dreams returned to him. It was like thinking about gods or magic. Maybe he only imagined it, but he remembered a friend who had told him about the "call."

"You have to do it when you're alone in the woods," the friend told him. "The call isn't a word or a phrase; it's a thought somewhere on the road between a wish and a nightmare."

"Why between?" the man said as he dripped off a barstool.

"Well, what if they come?" roared his friend, and the entire room slid onto the floor.

When the man felt strong enough to leave his bed, he walked to Keaton Park. A single turkey fluttered to the top of the jungle gym. It looked terrifying. 

The man had barely survived, to be honest. His doctors still acted suspicious. They'd grown so used to the idea of him dead that his showing up alive insulted their diagnostic skill. Maybe he'd lived between a wish and a nightmare anyway, all those months when death seemed like the only cure. Now that he was well, he felt stupefied, as if he'd stepped out of a dark house with bad air after suddenly finding the door. 

 

So. 

One afternoon when he felt quite better, he sped in his car to the state park and walked to the farthest hiking trail. It twisted up into the hills, like whoever made it had been following bad directions. He climbed for hours. At dusk he reached a small peak.

Here, he thought, was a suitable place. 

He concentrated and focused. His mind became a small point. He made the call and waited. 

Toward the darkest part of the night, a strange vermilion light slanted down the sky. The man stood and watched as it burned brighter and descended closer. Jesus, here it comes. This was his dearest wish come true. Very quietly, the spaceship landed among the trees at the bottom of the hill. 

"Hallelujah," the man said.

He dashed downhill through the brambles. 

When he got to the bottom, he couldn't make out the ship too well. It was hidden behind the trees. But, sure enough, the alien waited there in front of them. Unsure if it was a he or a she, the man was shocked that it appeared so human, dressed in a long and expensive-looking coat. It could have been anybody. An aristocrat. Even a doctor. 

Great, he thought, someone else who will be surprised to find me alive.

"How do I know you're really an alien?" the man said as he approached. "Do something only an alien would do."

The alien didn't miss a beat. It held up a small device, pressed a button on it, and disappeared.

 

The man searched the forest for hours by the light of the moon. There was no sign of the alien in the expensive coat. When the man returned to the place between the trees, he found the ramp of the spaceship and clambered up like a kid using a slide the wrong way. At the top, he pushed open a door that flew up into the ceiling. When he walked inside, all the lights were on. 

Not that that made a difference. 

He couldn't understand or operate any of the thousand flashing controls no matter how much he fiddled with them. In frustration nearing panic, the man flung his hands all over the surfaces of the ship, its walls, and ceiling until his hand met something like a tray jutting from a bulkhead. His fingers came away wet, then weren't. On closer inspection, the tray was filled with a liquid, or a half-liquid; or the tray was, itself, half-liquid. A dozen metal pieces floated at one end, some like dice and others like rooks and bishops from a chessboard.

On an impulse, trying his luck, the man plucked out one of the metal dice. All the lights in the ship turned off. This new darkness was not encouraging.

The man went out into the place between the trees. Maybe the ship had gone to sleep. Which upset him. First the alien had been denied him, and now the ship.

 

At first, the man hiked to the place between the trees every week, bringing with him the little metal die. But even with a flashlight he could not find the liquid tray, and the die remained in his pocket. Eventually he didn't crawl into the darkened ship at all. He stood staring at it like it was a whacked-out rough draft of some abstruse sculpture.

Maybe he had done something wrong, the man thought. Maybe he had offended the person from another planet. 

After a few months, he gave up visiting the place between the trees altogether. The idea of making the call again sickened him. He wouldn't cheat himself with illusions. He made every attempt to move on. That was part of recovery anyway: not to dwell on the big, looming shadow of his sickness and all its feverish fantasy. It's not living when you live in it forever. 

But the man never shook the memory of that feeling between a wish and a nightmare as the vermilion light slanted down the sky. In that moment, he had felt sure his wish was coming true. 

 

When he got married, the man and his wife decided to stay in town, where their families lived in the same houses they had occupied for decades. This decision planted a seed of discontent in the man's heart. He could feel it as he looked out the open chapel doors and down into the green valley, touched with autumn's gold. Deciding to stay made his desire to escape—which, he realized now, had been the point of the call in the first place—seem more irrepressible than ever. The distant radio towers surrounded the valley like the pylons of an invisible fence. He felt he was in danger of trying to escape again. By the time he and his wife found their own place, perched on a hill that overlooked a foggy creek, the man knew he would have to feel at home with all his might.

 

Years passed, quick as turning the pages of a book. 

The man had a job, but he lost it. Then his wife lost her job and took shifts at the animal shelter. When they started to fall behind on their mortgage payments, the man cleaned the spare room. They rented it out at a modest price. People on the television talked about the economy like it was a person who left without saying goodbye. 

A strange shift in feelings came. Much to the man's surprise, he began to feel more content than ever before. Even when threading a new electrical outlet for their tenant, he was too preoccupied for anxious thoughts of escape.

When his wife found work, at a little firm that sold art supplies, they flourished. He put in a tomato garden. She got a dog, because, she said, "We deserve each other," meaning her and the dog. That was her alien dream, the man figured. The house was her spaceship. It had landed right in front of her and never disappeared. By the time he found work for himself, he realized he felt the same thing. No escaping that. 

Sometimes, though—watching the dog run or spraying the vines so beetles didn't get them—even then, he remembered he had traded a dream for a life. He had never told anyone about it. They'd just say he was an old drunk. They'd almost be right.

In a box on his dresser, the man still kept the die hidden, like the knuckle bone of a saint. 

 

The man grew old and then ill. He had never quite healed; no one does. His recovery this time posed greater challenges than when he was young. Still, he'd learned strength, and with effort he regained it now. Days of clarity and peace came to him. He could see his whole life looping downward to these moments, these mornings of quiet fog over the creek.

Then, without warning or any hint of sickness, his wife coughed one evening at the dinner table, went to bed early with a headache, and never woke up. 

"Marnie," he said at dawn.

He looked at her there in the bed, seeing his whole life looping downward to this moment. He held open the front door as the paramedics came in, and his heart turned to ash. It flaked off bit by bit. He felt the bits go. 

It goes without saying that the man mourned her terribly. He fell into that slipstream of wish and nightmare. Try as they might, his friends could not comfort him. He openly raved about the loneliness, the sorrow, and the impossibility of escape. Every day, his friends felt frightened to be alone with him. They were scared of him when he was like this.

"It's too bad," one of them said, "that you can't call on a higher power."

This idea enraged the old man, but rage has a power like hope.

 

One night not long afterwards, the man sped in his battered car to the state park. It had been many years since his last visit to that dull and dreary place, full of pine cones and fat raccoons. The lines of the parking lot had been re-painted, big deal. He found the trail that twisted up into the hills like a lost person had been put in charge and walked to the top of the small peak and down to the place between the trees. It took him much longer than it had in the past. He had nothing with him but the old metal die, but he felt the years dragging on him, making him weary.

One wonders how he could feel interest in the spaceship after all this time. Well, he fucking didn't. It stood there, untouched and dumb. Impenetrable. Stupid. 

Not to be put off from his rage and grief, the man prepared for the second time in his life to make the call.

As he was about to do so—seconds away, really—the alien appeared with a faint pop. It stood in the same spot where it stood all those years before.

"You two-timing angel!" the old man said and swore. "Where in all the flickering fires of hell have you been?"

The alien smiled.

"You said to do something only an alien would do." The alien held up the device in his hand. "I was able to come here directly from our last meeting, which happened only seconds ago."

The man didn't know what to say. He mouthed words with no noise, like a fish.

"Are you okay?" the alien said.

"But now I'm dying! I'm old, and you're late!"

"If you like, I can take you back to your childhood," the alien said with a smile. "Or to your mating ceremony? Did you have a mating ceremony?"

The rage and grief of the old man made him feel like a spinning top. He spoke in exclamation points. 

"I have the missing piece of your spaceship," he said, "and I want to see your home planet!"

"You're looking at it," the alien said, holding out its arms. "I live here now."

The old man scoffed.

"Is this an invasion?"

"No," the alien said. "I wasn't planning on it. It's just me."

"But you can't just make this your home planet."

"Why not?" the alien said. "It's as simple as putting my name on something, or—"

Too enraged to speak, the old man held up his fist. He felt prepared to do great violence, but instead fell down dead of a heart attack that was like a personalized bolt of lightning.

The alien approached the body and looked into the man's face before realizing what had happened. It thought for a moment. What could it do? It searched his clothes and found the small piece taken from its ship, then buried the body in the earth. 

When the alien had finished, it looked down at the slab of shale it had selected for a headstone. That was a nice touch. On the surface, it had signed its own name.