Just past four in the morning, with an apologetic whine, June Darby’s third-hand junker guttered to a stop.
She’d known about the new shop for weeks, of course; rumors spread like secondhand infections through hospitals, and there was little news in Jasper.
Never see the owner around. Little gay boy. One of those California types. Probably angling for peyote.
Frank got his oil changed there once at two in the morning. Said the guy doing it acted like he’d never seen a credit card before. Ended up doing it for free. Good oil change, though. Fast.
“What,” June had said, sensibly (she’d felt), “was Frank doing getting his oil changed at two in the morning?”
They’d regarded her solemnly, and murmured, and spoken no more; a motorcycle accident had rolled through the doors one piece at a time, and afterward the talk had turned to aliens, and to the government investigation that seemed always ongoing, and June had let her mind drift.
Crash Site Repairs , screamed the tatty neon sign over the door. Someone had drawn--no, airbrushed --an alien on scrap metal. Beneath it they’d written, with evident care, OPEN WHEN WE FEEL LIKE IT.
It was four-fifteen in the morning, and a foul orange light spilled beneath the boarded windows into the parking lot. Muffled by the door, a rock song was playing. Surely it was a rock song, though the cadence stuttered and an atonal beep served where vocals should’ve been.
Peyote . June checked her bag for her pepper spray.
“Excuse me.” It came out too sharp, in her exhaustion. “Are you--”
The song shut off with a hiss of static.
“--open?” finished June weakly. A massive shadow moved beneath the window-boards, though she heard no footsteps.
In the lot behind her, two coyotes scrapped over something dead. Her eyes were adjusting now to the neon’s glow, and through the barbed-wire fence loomed something she could not quite resolve, half-buried in crates of scrap metal--
She’d expected the door to squeak, but it glided open as if freshly oiled.
Her eyes flickered back to the doorway; her awareness shot, icy in the humid night, to her pepper spray.
June stared up. Took a step back, automatically, and squinted.
The light did not fall on him quite right, perhaps, or the lines of his face seemed somehow indistinct. In her nurse’s slip-ons June came up to the middle of his chest. Though he filled the door, the glow seemed to filter through him, and June screwed up her eyes against it--
“Hope I’m not disturbing you. My car’s broken down a couple blocks down the road--” June pointed, without turning. “The tow company doesn’t run after midnight around here.”
He glanced back, following the line of her arm. Perhaps her vision was swimming--after three shifts in two days, she’d be surprised by nothing--but as he moved he sharpened, details locking into place.
“Yeah, I can get that. Sit down.” His voice reverberated .
The door shut silently, with a little puff of desert air. June listened for a tow truck’s engine-growl that never came. Outside, the coyotes screamed as if shot.
She texted the sign to Jack, who at fourteen was going through an alien phase; after a moment’s thought she snapped shots of the movie posters jamming every inch of the walls ( Saw she recognized, and Night of the Living Dead ), of the surgical-bay cleanness of the place, of the electric-blue glow leaking under the back door. ( More neon , she supposed.)
“ Is this how people get abducted by aliens? ” she added, at first as a joke.
Minutes passed, and June texted Jack the shop’s address.
Wheels rumbled on the gravel, and the door swung open.
“Your car’s in the back.” The big man’s face scarcely moved as he spoke. “We’ll call you when it’s done.”
She’d long since learned--a cautious woman’s habit, or a nurse’s--to memorize the details. The abductor was a white male, very large, aged between 20 and 60. Patient is a Caucasian male, oriented x3, flat affect--
A young-looking fifty, or an old-looking thirty-five. Built like an aging boxer, or a soldier who’d seen better days. Hair and beard a uniform steely gray. Nonspecific clothes, the kind the eye skimmed over. The vacant expression of a body-snatcher unused to human muscles.
It took June an instant to realize that she’d gone mad from sleep deprivation. A body-snatcher?
Patient is oriented x3, with no history of psychotic illness. Presenting complaint is fear of abduction by aliens.
“You’re going to need my number for that,” she said into the silence.
The man seemed to think about it, his brow quirking too sharply. “My partner’s out on a supply run.” An odd way to put it. “Gonna need him to look at your setup. Move.”
“Simmer down, Blake.” The purr of a well-loved engine, and jaunty footsteps. “You’re the divorcee special? Nice beater.”
He spoke as if the distinction between owner and car was an unfortunate technicality.
Blake’s partner was small and lean, his outline sharp where Blake’s was indifferent and vague. In the run-down shop he was too handsome by half, oddly precisely lit, as if he’d been pasted from some Hollywood film. Invasion of the Body Snatchers 2: The Body Snatchers Come to Nevada , supplied her weary mind inanely.
“You’re the owner?” June clutched her bag, feeling the pepper spray roll against her keys.
“Dr. Kazuhiko Nakao.” His voice was ripe with self-satisfaction, as if he’d uttered a devastating punchline and was waiting for her to laugh.
Blake groaned, as if suppressing a grin. It was the first time he’d seemed--
June ignored it. “I can wait here until it’s done--”
Though the thought of making the half-hour walk home alone, watching the dawn color the desert sky, paled next to spending it with these men.
“--or I can give you my number,” she added weakly, and Nakao seized on it.
“Blake here doesn’t like locals. Especially not in his personal bubble.” He said locals with relish, and Blake groaned again. “Don’t worry. I am as good as you’ve heard.”
She’d heard nothing but scuttlebutt; it seemed prudent not to mention that.
“Usual contract. Anything dinged, smoking, busted, or otherwise inoperable we replace. I’ll treat it just like I treat my partner here.” Nakao ( Doctor Nakao) flashed a smirk that did not reassure, and Blake’s shoulders went stiff. “We’ll get that hunk of junk ready for the Indy 500.”
On the way out the door June searched the darkness for a tow truck, and saw none. A gleaming muscle car idled in the sole parking spot, its headlights picking out an airbrushed sign: Reserved for Proprietor; All Others Will Be Smelted .
No doctor at Jasper’s run-down hospital drove a car so luxurious. She doubted whether Jasper’s streets had ever seen one.
Against her better instincts, it cheered June up. Mad as Dr. Nakao was, he plainly adored cars.
If anything, he might abduct my sedan.
June snapped a photograph for Jack. In the flash of her phone camera, the car seemed to leer; she could’ve sworn the mirrors shifted fractionally, as if posing--
Then June blinked and it was gone.
The back door opened; the back door shut. Through the fence, June caught a glimpse of something that cast a massive shadow, something with the stocky lines of a truck but the bristling hide of a tank . Nakao stepped lightly through the junkyard--and junkyard was the only word for it, stacked high with crates of wire and scrap metal in some incomprehensible arrangement--and laid a gentle hand on the truck. He murmured something too low for her to hear, something that buzzed and vibrated like a shockwave through her.
June sensed motion, and whirled. The Aston Martin sat smugly on the gravel, just where it’d been.
The Daily Grind had opened as an artisanal cafe, with woodblock prints on the walls and house-made yogurt; but gourmet tastes did not survive long in Jasper, Nevada, and it was cheap Coffee-Mate creamer that June poured into her burnt-tasting coffee.
By sunrise she’d concluded three things: the night’s events had been some murky hallucination, at the ambiguous time between night and dawn; Jasper attracted odd people, and some of them grew odder as they stayed; and she would tell Jack nothing of the prickle down her spine, and her coworkers less.
June had read Jack fairy tales, on the longest nights after Michael left. She’d shut off the TV, put away the Game Boy ( he needs his father, she’d yelled, still in her scrubs, not some stupid toy--what is this, a bribe ? ). She’d settled into bed beside him, and read automatically, without registering the words.
Still--to her surprise--she’d internalized something, after all. Vaguely she remembered: Don’t speak things into existence if you aren’t prepared to deal with them.
She was not, June judged, prepared to deal with whatever Kazuhiko Nakao and Blake were.
Blake shouldered past the back door, unnaturally clean for a man who’d just been repairing a car neglected for five years. “Doc’s got you covered. Your fuel injection crankshaft was busted.”
Again the dislocated feeling swept her. His voice was self-assured, brusque--but he was speaking nonsense--
Well, if anyone could tow a sedan with his bare hands, he’d be the one.
Still she automatically produced her credit card. Blake took it with obvious apprehension, squinting at the name. “That’ll be, uh, ten. Cash only--Junedarby.”
He said it as one word--
-- The guy doing it acted like he’d never seen a credit card before , she recalled in a cold clear flash--
June rifled through her wallet, grimacing. She’d broken her last ten for coffee and a doughnut; reluctantly she produced a twenty.
Blake stared at it. With clear morning light leaking under the windows’ boards, he seemed at once less intimidating and more uncanny.
Outside she heard a flurry of low rumbles, and an answering beep. Blake seemed to snap to life. “Gimme a moment.” From beneath the counter he produced a small lockbox, entering an eye-wateringly lengthy combination. June had enough time to see stacks of cash, and something that gleamed, before Blake slammed the shut and handed her a ten. “Car’s outside. Shoo.”
The Aston Martin was parked by the curb, as if Nakao had moved it in the night. Its windows were tinted, she noted without surprise; Nakao seemed the type to be seen only on his own terms.
It was her own car that startled her: the light seemed hazy around it, and the finish gleamed mirror-smooth. The chrome winked in the sun. They’d even fixed the sticky door handle and stitched up the torn seats.
“Someone broke in and polished the car, Mom.”
June opened one eye. She’d fallen asleep on the sofa again, as she so often did after her third 12-hour shift. It was early afternoon; Jack was taking his alien game out of the TV stand.
“They were pretty thorough at the shop.” It had scarcely seemed the same car, so smooth and responsive. “We’ll see if it breaks in a week.”
June kept her voice breezy.
In the garage she’d opened the hood and nearly gasped. The car’s parts glistened as no engine should, and they’d been rearranged apparently at random--as if by someone who knew the theory, but had never seen an engine in the flesh.
There was something odd about Jasper, Nevada. In the sixties the groundwater had been tinged electric-blue and tasted of saltpeter, it was still said. The bases outside town were Air Force, some swore, but others insisted they were Army; there were no signs, naught but tanks and planes and vast unmarked warehouses, and the enlisted men were grim-faced and did not mingle easily. Day and night the air filled with the hum of jets overhead.
A steady stream of car and motorcycle crashes rolled off the highway, enough to keep Jasper Hospital’s ER flooded at all hours. Haunted , some joked; others claimed that an alien ship had crashed there, some years back, and that perhaps some still-transmitting receiver would scramble the brain and short all terrestrial engines.
Of late rumors had spread of a cherry-red muscle car roaring through the endless night, a car taking impossible risks with no driver at the wheel. The ghost of a driver who’d died on the highway, or a piece of experimental military technology; before the week was out June had heard a dozen stories.
“Don’t believe everything you hear,” she told Jack one night over dinner. “People get bored in small towns. They make up stories.”
Jack speared a tater tot on his fork. He’d taken to defrosting food for them, and had gotten the timing down to an inexact science: the food rolled out of the oven, sometimes soggy and sometimes burnt, as June walked through the door. “You’ve been saying that for years, Mom.”
“One of these days we’re going to get out of here.” Through the back window June watched the night. “After I pay off my loans for school--”
Nursing in Jasper paid well. Few wanted to live there.
“You’ve been saying that for years, too.”
“You hear what happened at the base last night?”
June slugged her coffee. Massaged her temples. In one shift they’d seen four motorcycle accidents-- meat crayons , said the nurses, where the patients couldn’t hear--and two head-on collisions. “It was military aircraft, or freak storm patterns, or a collective hallucination.”
Her coffee tasted sour, of cheap creamer and bile. The fluorescent lights hummed like the calm before a storm.
June closed her eyes, and the storm hit. “Let’s pretend it was aliens. Their--their spaceship crashed, or something. They’re not going to show up and demand to be taken to our leader. They won’t look like people, and they won’t speak English, and they won’t want to negotiate, and they sure won’t have seen our--our TV shows --” She took a breath, blinking away the haze of exhaustion. “And we won’t understand what they want or why they’re here. They probably won’t tell us until we’re all dead. Even if they tell us, it’s not going to make sense.” June’s nails dug into her palms; she was sweating, she realized, though the hospital air was frigid. “They’re alien . You know, strange and different and like nothing we’ve seen before.”
They were watching her now, all of them, their faces slack and stony in equal measure.
“Whatever’s out there--” June folded her arms. “Maybe it’s just not our problem.”
Agent Scully , they called her for the next week, or the one with a bug up her ass about aliens .
The night was alive around her, though the landscape was dust and bone. Something that June couldn’t name fizzed in the air.
In the passenger seat Jack dozed, the seatbelt slipping up his chest. In Tranquility his father had taken him to the movies--some disposable action flick about robots from space, she remembered vaguely--and then for pizza.
She’d not pushed, and Jack hadn’t explained, but his face had been stony and he’d dozed off quickly, as if trying to escape.
Coyotes scampered in the scrubby brush, and the stars winked bright and clear. June switched on a news station, barely at a whisper, the signal fading in and out.
She heard them before she saw them, the guttural roar of engines growing every instant to something mad and thunderous. By instinct June pulled over, slamming the wheel to the right.
She’d remember it for weeks afterward, bold and bright: the slick Aston Martin glowing, as if at high noon, against the indigo sky; barely keeping pace, the armored truck pounding after it, plucked from some fever dream of a war movie, from some footage on the evening news, tremendous and impossible and real .
She’d remember, too, the wild laughter, the yells of two men goading each other. June held her breath, heart pounding, feeling the world teeter on its axis.
It lasted seconds at most. They were faster than any car had the right to be. Yet she felt whole paragraphs fill her mind, in the moment she sat frozen--
Jack stirred in his seat. “Mom? What’s--”
“Some idiots out for a joyride,” said June through clenched teeth. “They could’ve really hurt someone. Bad things happen out here on empty roads, Jack.”
“The wheel’s sticking. I turned pretty sharply to avoid some crazy driver the other night, and--well--”
The day shimmered; reality seemed just out of reach. June’s head swam a little in the heat. She shrugged, squaring her shoulders.
“Got it.” Blake nodded, eyeing her indifferently. His eyes were gold now, she noticed, or they’d been gold all along. “Can do. It’ll be ten dollars.”
He’s getting better at this , said a voice of quiet conviction, and June swallowed it down.
She’d not seen Blake and Dr. Nakao at the supermarket, or else picking up a pizza and a rental movie for a cozy night in.
Yet Jack--not yet fifteen, and not yet eligible for his permit--had begged her to take him two towns over to the drive-in theater. Plan 9 From Outer Space, some cult-film garbage; but she’d felt guilty, and she’d taken him, and from a distance she’d thought she’d recognized Nakao’s Aston Martin at the drive-in theater. And a big hulking military truck beside it, and only on the outskirts of Jasper would nobody bat an eye.
“What brings you to town?” she asked at last, holding Blake’s gaze.
Something shifted in Blake’s stern face. His grin was slow, uncertain at first--as if he was remembering how--but almost charming. “People wouldn’t stop asking me stupid questions back home.”
His voice was booming still, and did not quite match his body. No human, however barrel-chested, had such resonance; June’s skin prickled. She thought of pipe organs, of factory equipment, of vibrations .
“Your boyfriend’s a medical doctor,” she pressed, and Blake tensed but didn’t deny either part. “But he’s doing car repair, for prices that shouldn’t even pay for parts--”
“He likes car repair,” said Blake, shrugging one-shouldered and scratching his beard. He was handsome, in a scuffed bearish way. She couldn’t remember if he’d been handsome all along. “Has a lot in common with medicine. Breaking stuff. Putting it back together. Maybe hanging onto a couple old broken parts and swapping ‘em into other stuff.”
June’s eyes went to the back door, to the fenced-in lot where, she knew, the armored truck held court over crates of scrap. Blake caught her gaze, and set his jaw, showing teeth.
“What do you do with money?” she asked at last, and Blake twisted his big hands.
“Here’s a tip for you, Darby: you don’t ask me any questions, I don’t ask you any, and we’ll all get along just fine.”
It was as good as an admission.
Junedarby , he’d called her the first night, as if struggling with the concept of a surname. Was it Blake Nakao, then, or did he have one name only?
( Chosen for its sound, not its meaning. Chosen to be easy to remember-- )
The daylight trickled in thin sheets beneath the window boards, picking out the newest movie poster: Plan 9 From Outer Space .
“All right.” June produced her wallet. “Well, you and your partner are new in town, and the people around here aren’t always open-minded.” She left it hanging, and Blake shifted uneasily.
Like having a teenager.
“I don’t need to know what you’re doing. I don’t want to know. If you’re on the run from the government--not my problem. Just fix my car, and don’t break anything you can’t put back together.”
“Yes, lady.” She’d not heard Nakao’s car pull up. Smartly he stepped through the back door, slipping an arm around Blake’s waist. “You’ve got us all figured out. We’re shapeshifting alien robots from the planet Velocitron, on the lam from a teeny little intergalactic war--”
Blake startled, but rolled his eyes and chucked Nakao’s shoulder.
“That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard,” said June into the prolonged silence. “You got that from--”
“Saturday morning cartoons,” said Nakao with a wry smirk. “You hoo-mans make some fine pop culture. You’ll be spared when the Decepticon warships touch down.”
“Scram,” said Blake, and his smile was not so friendly.
The Crash Site sat on the outskirts of town. There was only one route through Jasper.
Some nights Nakao was parked there at odd hours. A sick amber light bled from the windows then, and an alien beat shook the junkyard out back. On those nights, icy blue lights bled through the fence, and flurries of low beeps and rumbles jarred her teeth and bones; on those nights, her car radio switched itself on, and static prickled her skin.
And on one of those nights she killed the motor and padded up to the fence from the other side, out of the Aston Martin’s view. For seconds she listened, trying to pick out the beat, searching for the staccato beep that might have been an alien voice--
And someone twiddled the dial, and Rock You Like A Hurricane blasted over the speakers.
The truck’s high-beams were blindingly bright. Against the crumbling wall two men’s shadows jittered, as if not quite perfected yet.
Something rumbled, like a deep rich laugh, and Blake scooped Nakao off his feet and spun him round to a flurry of beeps and trills.
June backed toward her car, her heart pounding an uneasy rhythm, feeling she’d interrupted something. Feeling she’d scratched too far beneath the surface of Jasper.
The coyotes watched her go, with wide judgmental eyes, and resumed picking over the bones of something perhaps not quite dead.
“Jasper’s kind of a special place,” Michael Darby had said as they unpacked their lives from moving boxes. Jack had been three, and still impressionable. “Funny things happen here.”
“Well,” June had said, young and already weary, “you could have said that before we signed the mortgage.”
Michael had only laughed; Michael had laughed easily and often. He’d been a born storyteller. “Supposed to be aliens out there. What d’you think of that, Jack-Jack?”
At night they’d taken Jack out on Michael’s shoulders, into the great red expanse of the desert, and looked for shooting stars.
“They’re coming to Earth,” Michael had sung, bouncing Jack back and forth. “They’re coming to Earth to eat you up--”
“Mommy.” Jack had shrieked with laughter--laughter and fear, perhaps. In hindsight. “Mommy, make him stop--”
“You see any aliens this week, June?”
For days it’d been a regular question at the nurse’s station. June felt herself flush, felt her mother-voice rising in her throat--
--but instead she was calm, businesslike. Honest. “Just two. They didn’t say what they wanted. Suppose it was what everybody wants: to be left alone to live their lives.”