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Fiction: The Midland Specter by David Prill

The gunshot hole burned and bled, and as he fled through the rain and mean wind Jack Elmer pressed the base of his palm to the wound on his arm, hoping to stem the stream of life as it sought a way out of his body. His fingers felt sticky and the blood was thicker than water but not thick enough, no, not thick enough. 

His mind was still reeling from the robbery, that botched betrayal of a hold up. Last rites at the First National Bank of Midland.

His life was over, he knew it, felt it, that’s what the throbbing in his arm kept telling him. Over…over…over.

The scene kept replaying in his mind, like a record from the bottom of the hit parade stuck in an endless groove, like his life. It didn’t make sense, not completely, not where it mattered.

Cousin Ike rushed into the bank while Jack kept the Merc idling at the curb. Jack waited, white-knuckling the wheel, the clock on the wall outside the bank ticking away their future.

Go, Ike go. Go to the counter, show them the gun, grab the money, go.

Then, while Jack waited for Ike to go, a crowd abruptly, out-of-nowherely, began to clog the sidewalk in front of the Merc. A crowd, on the sidewalk between the Merc and the bank, between Jack and Ike, between go and stay. A crowd that began to spill onto the street, right into their late-night, Sanka-fueled scheme.

Next door to the bank was a Gamble’s department store. The townies appeared to be fighting for a spot in front of the display window. Jack couldn’t see what they were straining to view. He tried to remember what had been there when they drove up to pull the job. It must be important, for them to stand out there, jostling in the wind and rain.

He couldn’t see, and didn’t remember, but in his boy days neighborhood folks used to gather around a store on Broadway Avenue to watch the World Series on the latest Philco television set conveniently positioned in the store window. He recalled seeing Hank Greenberg circling the bases after swatting a circuit clout, as the fans roared…

Jack was running too, in strange woods, a roaring in his ears, and it wasn’t his fan club. He felt dizzy. He stumbled and crawled. He got up and ran. He made tracks. Branches punished his face and arms.

What happened back there? he wondered. How did I end up shot and on the lam?

It was a mess in his mind. When the crowd mysteriously appeared outside Gamble’s, Jack gaped for a few heartbeats before jumping out of the car. He had to warn Ike. They had to call off the job. A whole town of witnesses was waiting for them.

But it was too late.

Ike bolted out of the bank at soon as Jack hit the sidewalk. His partner clutched a bulging black bag and a look of bewilderment.

From there it was a tangle. The crowd, the car, maybe a cop. No doubt about the gunshot. Jack sunk to his knees in pain and shock. The getaway car was somehow pulling away. Jack forced himself to his feet and tried to catch up, but Ike wasn’t waiting. He was driving to be gone. With the Merc. With Jack’s share of the loot. With all of his dreams.

Leaving Jack with just a gunshot hole that burned and bled.

The crowd took its time breaking up, even the gunfire not enough to divert their attention.

Jack could see the television screen in the department store window.

He saw a flash of something, someone, nothing that added up, before the picture turned to snow.

Jack clung to the crowd, trying to carry himself straight and narrow, then ducked down an alley, a side street, a vacant lot, the woods…

#

Jack was sure he was being followed, and ran like it. He didn’t look back. He couldn’t believe it.

It was cold and muddy in the woods, the rain drumming a rhythm on the leaves. Like footsteps chasing him.

Jack ran until the black day turned into true night, until his legs felt heavy and numb.

He ran until the grove parted and he found himself on the edge of a field, along a twisted creek, a dark farmhouse in the near distance. He had to get out of the rain, find shelter. Hide out. Like the criminal he knew himself to be.

#

Hunched over and hurting, Jack staggered to the farmhouse through a trail of discarded tin cans and derelict farm equipment. Many of the windows of the two-story house were covered with yellowed paper. One window on the first floor was broken out, the wind whipping the rain through the opening.

Carefully making his way up onto the porch, stepping around gaps in the floor from missing planks, he peered inside. The house was abandoned. Stripped bare of furniture, of personal belongings, of life. A shell. Jack went to the front door and nudged it open. He couldn’t even smell any memories. But it got him out of the rain, and that’s all that mattered.

Wasn’t much warmer though, Jack thought as he inspected his new digs. Living room, probably where his hosts celebrated many a Thanksgiving. His imagination filled it in. He remembered, long ago, when innocence was still in his blood, spending holidays at his grandparents’ farm in southwestern Minnesota. Wasn’t like this. He couldn’t bring the recollections back all the way, back far enough to take away his pain, just hazy images of pots brimming with chicken and potatoes, bread baking in the wood stove. Pies and cakes and enough hard cider for even old Uncle Chet. A pantry stocked to the ceiling, enough to last a long winter. Once upon a time anyway. This time, this house, bare, filled with nothing but desolation, not even enough crumbs to interest a mouse.

Jack was hungry, but the pantry was stocked with nothing but cobwebs. His arm felt dead. The bleeding seemed to have eased off somewhat, but he still kept the pressure on.

He took a spot against the wall on the naked cold living room floor, an occasional flash of lightning illuminating his misery.

Is it going to end here? he wondered, shivering, wishing he could light a fire and dry out his wet clothes. Is this it?

How did I end up here? Too many wrong steps, too much slack-jawed listening to Ike. Him and his vocational college degree. They started small, so it didn’t seem so bad when they went big. Going to Hell in stages. Car theft, breaking into garages and stealing tools, high school stuff, easy pickings. He trusted Ike. When he suggested something more ambitious, it only seemed natural. A small shove to knock off a pushover. A backwater bank. Why not? It was time to move up from that penny-ante stuff, throw a whole fistful of chips in the kitty, go for those tightly packed twenty-dollar bags.

The rain beat down on the roof.

Pushover. We thought of everything. Sure, Ike.

Where is he now? Jack wondered. Maybe he doubled back, searching for me right now. Maybe he’ll show up, open that car door, the heater blasting, a cup of coffee waiting on the dash, and haul me out of here.

Unless the bullet came from his gun. Unless his aim was dead on. Ike was always a crack shot. He practiced knocking pork-and-bean cans off a fence post. Champion of the world at shooting up pork-and-bean cans. Promised that soon they’d be taking their aim at caviar tins.

Jack’s belly called out in need.

He heard other noises, too, outside and in. Creaking, skittering, moaning. Just sounds made by an old, forlorn house. Just ghosts of the past, hopes dashed on the bare, filthy floor.

#

Sleep, of a sort. Finally, fitfully.

In Jack’s dreams, a grinning death’s head Ike squeezed the trigger on an unnaturally long rifle and plunked him off a fence post. It was a clean shot.

#

Later.

Something changed.

Sunshine and a warm breeze filled the little left-behind farmhouse.

It was morning, and Jack felt like he had passed into another world. The world outside, forcing its way in, was like heaven descending.

Inside, the fragile shell of a house looked almost beautiful, the way the sun took it in its arms and gave it hope again. It was like the past come to life.

If there were any rainbows in the world, they had to be outside.

Jack was on the floor, his eyes taking in the wonder, almost certain he was dreaming.

Almost became absolutely when he saw the horse gazing at him with clear and immense brown eyes through the broken window.

It was a front window, the sheet torn off by the wind of the night before. The horse, chestnut and white, had stuck its head part way into the house, nodding slightly, curious, waiting. There was a horse on his grandparents’ farm that looked just like this one. Stormy J. Jack was always afraid of that horse. He was much younger then.

Jack struggled up, slowly, in sections, feeling like he was floating. The pain from the night before had subsided. Finally on his feet, he looked again to the window.

His visitor was gone.

Puzzled, Jack woozily made his way across the room, wondering if he imagined the horse.

All the windows were filled with only sunshine breezes.

He went to the front door, creaked it open.

The horse stood still, standing with its flank facing Jack, down at the end of a broken-up sidewalk.

Jack took a step forward, weaved, nearly fell.

The horse seemed to swim in the sunlight. Jack narrowed his gaze, staggered closer, trying to force the horse into focus. The ten feet stretched out to ten yards. It was hard to grab a moving target. He got a handful of mane, then it slipped out of his fingers, and he found himself looking up at the horse’s beautiful brown and white belly.

Another try, like climbing a silky mountain, sliding off, then halfway on, then all the way up.

Jack hugged the horse’s neck, exhausted. He felt it begin to move, at a deliberate pace, away from the old house.

There was a creek skirting the tilled fields, and the horse followed it.

Jack felt himself drift away to a finer place. 

#

More big eyes, looking at him, this time from an open door.

When he met the big eyes with his own, they disappeared. Just like last time.

But this time the big eyes belonged to a boy.

Jack faded out.

#

When Jack returned, his eyes didn’t meet anything. The doorway was empty.

Gradually, Jack felt his way back into his mind and body. And his past. At least the past few days.

He remembered the ghost of a farmhouse. This wasn’t it. He remember the horse in the window, but that was all.

Where am I? he wondered. And who brought me here?

He felt for his arm, the hole he could touch, and his fingers fingered gauze. The wound had been dressed.

Turning his head, Jack could see a line of apple trees edging a garden, a creek beyond the garden. He saw blue sky. He wanted that sky.

His gaze fell back to the room. A small bedroom, decorated with Jesus candids and bric-a-brac of uncertain dominion.

On the far wall a dresser made from the deepest darkest wood he had ever seen, a sunflower in a slender clear vase poised on top.

On a bedside table was a glass of water. He took it carefully in his hands and drank tentatively, then hard.

Jack shut his eyes. The bed was comfortable. It felt good not to run. It felt good not to hurt. It felt good to be with the apple trees and blue sky, and the big eyes.

He slept.

#

The next time he woke, Jack felt almost like his old self. He sat up in bed, cautiously, then put his feet on the floor. Other than some stiffness in his injured arm and a bit of all-purpose discombobulation, he felt good.

He wore a nightshirt that looked like it came over on the boat from Europe. His regular clothes, jeans and green work shirt, cleaned and pressed, were draped over a chair.

Jack dressed and left the room.

The living room featured another painting of Jesus, hanging by a nail again, over the couch. A television with rabbit ears was stationed in the corner, volume low, a farm report playing. Jack went into the kitchen, amazed to see the kitchen he imagined in the abandoned farm house. The kitchen from a warm and pleasant past.

No one appeared to be around, so Jack headed out through the porch and into the farmyard.

He breathed in deeply the rain-washed air. The farmyard was alive in a lazy sort of way. Chickens pecked and clucked over by the hen house. Sheep grazed in a field alongside the creek. A cat moused outside the corn crib. It took Jack back, to a time when cares were fewer and dreams were still within reach. He almost expected to see his grandfather come out of the barn and traipse over to the chicken coop, bucket in hand, to gather up the eggs.

Jack walked over to the barn, unlatched the door and swung it open. A gray and white cat scurried between his legs. Inside, Jack smelled hay and manure, a combination he didn’t mind at all. There was a narrow path between the feed bin on the left and a room stacked with straw bales on the right. Beyond, a manger, and a door open to the pasture. The barn, he thought, showed some signs of neglect. He couldn’t put his finger on it, it was more of a feeling than anything. Something was missing.

He flipped up the handle on a red pump along the wall. Water gushed. He leaned down, cupped his hands beneath the stream and washed his face.

As he did, he caught a flash of motion out of the corner of his eye. He quickly stood up, water dripping from him.

The boy at the door was maybe six years old, wearing a gray t-shirt, cutoff jeans and muddy boots.

“Hey kid, didn’t see you standing there. You could be in the jungle corps, as quiet as you can sneak up on someone.”

Jack finished washing, then dried his face on his sleeve.

“I sure do appreciate you folks getting me all fixed up. Not real sure how I got here, but thanks.”

The boy kept staring.

“My name’s Jack. What’s yours?”

The boy hesitated, then said, in clear voice, “I’m Jimmy.”

“Okay Jim, good to know you. Say, is your pa or ma around?”

As he said it, the cold water seemed to have its desired effect. Jack felt clear-headed. He began to worry. They knew he had been shot. Maybe they were bringing the sheriff in right now.

Jack stepped quickly to the door. No one in sight. He didn’t see a vehicle. He’d have to get out of here on foot, maybe through the corn fields. They were just high enough to get lost in.

“What are the jungle corps?” Jimmy asked.

“No time, son,” said Jack, slipping by him. He turned back. “Ever play hide and seek?”

“Sure.”

“Well tell you what, let’s play right now. You turn your back, count to fifty, and I’ll go hide somewhere. When you get to fifty, you come out and find me. Deal?”

“Deal,” the boy affirmed solemnly.

The boy’s eyes closed, and Jack made tracks. He took a step forward, toward the yard, then hurried back into the barn, climbing into the manger and out through the door that led into the pasture. He stayed in the shade of the barn. All he had to do was cross a muddy field and he would be safe in the corn. 

When he reached the end of the barn, Jack ducked down low, staying close to a barbed wire fence that enclosed the pasture. A garden was on the other side of the fence, grape vines corkscrewing around the fence wire, tall dill weeds providing good cover.

Jack had gone about halfway along the garden when he found himself face-to-face with a woman about his own age on the other side of the fence. She was pulling weeds on her knees, her face sweaty and flushed beneath her floppy sun bonnet. A moment of surprise passed quickly. “I was wondering when you’d come out of it,” she said. “But I don’t know that you should have gotten up and about so fast. You’ve had a rough time of it.”

They stood up now, Jack unable to find words, feeling like he had been caught doing something wrong.

“You’re going to be okay, you know,” she said. “A few years ago one of the neighbors accidentally shot himself in the leg. I took out the bullet and cleaned the wound myself. I had some nursing training when I got out of high school. So don’t worry.”

“You brought me here?”

“Mr. Keel did.”

“Mr. Keel…”

“One of our horses. He came down into the yard, with you draped over his back. You must have passed out.”

“I don’t remember that. I was…hunting…the storm…I found an empty farmhouse…trying to get out of the rain.”

“You must mean Great Aunt June’s place. Since she died it’s sat empty. Can’t be too safe in there, rotting floorboards and such.”

“It was raining cats and…I was trying to…I didn’t mean…”

“I know. It was a bad storm.” She looked at him curiously. “What are you doing on that side of the fence? Where are you going?”

Before Jack could stammer his response, the boy came racing through the garden, pointing at Jack, shouting, “I found you! I found you!”

The woman laughed.

“I guess I’m not very good at hiding,” said Jack.

“By the by, my name’s Emma Wilkie.”

“I’m Jack. Jack Hoyle.” It was the first thing that came into his mind. Those late-night pinochle games with traitor Ike.

“Well Jack Hoyle, why don’t we head back to the house and get some lunch?” 

“I really should be going. I appreciate you taking care of me and all, but I don’t want to put you out.”

“You’re my responsibility,” she said with a quiet smile. “You shouldn’t even be up and around yet. Have some lunch, then we’ll see if you’re well enough to go anywhere.”

Jack ran over the situation in his mind. She hadn’t heard about the bank job. Or had heard but didn’t put two and two together. Or put it all together but didn’t care. She could have called the sheriff right away, but didn’t. That was a promising sign. He didn’t have any way out of here other than the shoe leather express. So maybe it was best to lay low until he figured out his next move, keeping one eye on the exit at all times.

They walked through the farmyard together, the three of them, the boy in-between, and as they crossed the porch and entered the kitchen, Jack started liking her. He tried to shut his feelings down, divert them to a place where they couldn’t do him any harm, but it was too late. The feeling had taken root inside him. 

It had happened before, the feeling. Not recently, and never often, and usually fleeting, but here it was again in all its unexpected wonder. Like a flower blooming in a pile of manure.

Before lunch Emma made Jack sit on a kitchen chair while she rolled up his shirt sleeve and peeled back the bandage. She inspected the wound carefully, warm fingers on his skin. “Doesn’t look too bad. No infection. How does it feel?“

“Feels allright.” He stood up and quickly turned the sleeve back down. “You could have taken me to the doctor.”

She shrugged. “You don’t know old Doc Willow. He’s a kind soul, but heavens, those trembling hands.”

Jack was trembling inside. She was attractive in a clean sort of way. She had soft eyes and a warm way of talking, like her voice was filled with cream. Looking at her was like seeing sunshine fill the abandoned farmhouse.

They ate lunch, chicken and potato salad and tomatoes fresh from the garden. The boy threw Jack all sorts of questions, even asked him if he was an outlaw, but Jack just laughed and said, “That’s right. You ever hear of Billy the Kid? He was my daddy.”

After lunch they sat out on the porch, watching Jimmy tear around the yard with a ball and stick, real quick, and just listened to the birds and didn’t see any bees and didn’t really say much to remember, almost like they had sat out on the porch every day after lunch, and Jack dug his fingers into his palms, trying to put the brakes on his heart.

He couldn’t sit still, so he got to his feet, deciding he had enough of the feeling. “Well I guess I’d better see about heading on out then. Don’t want to keep you from your work.”

“Are you sure you’re up to it?”

“Yep.”

“Could you do me a favor first?” she asked.

“Okay.”

“I need to move a dresser. It’s too heavy for me.”

“Yeah, no problem.”

They went into the house, into the main bedroom, all rose wallpaper and purple linoleum, while Jimmy watched the television.

“I want to move it over to the far wall, next to the chair…oh, what am I saying, your arm…”

“Still got one good wing left,” Jack said, and as he moved around her to get to the other side of the dresser, their shoulders brushed lightly. They exchanged a look, too long, and the brakes failed. The feeling wasn’t taking no for an answer. It even put words into his mouth, and they began with: “Emma…”

“Mommy, look! It’s daddy!”

Jack’s feelings broke away like a rotted limb from a tree. He was embarrassed. He felt like a heel. He looked away. He moved away, out of the bedroom for chrissakes.

Into the living room, hoping his face wasn’t too flushed, thinking everything he felt inside was on public display.

Jack stopped.

There was no one in the room but the boy. And the boy wasn’t looking outside or into another room, he was standing, pointing, in front of the television.

Jack stood there, staring at the screen.

“That’s my daddy,” said the boy proudly.

Staring.

Jack wasn’t sure what he was seeing in his stare. It took a minute for his mind to decipher it into terms he could comprehend.

There was someone, something, in middle of the grainy black and white screen, shot from the torso up. Sitting behind a metal desk. It was human only in the general sense, with a head, neck, shoulders, arms. Big shoulders, massive arms. Its skin was scaled, huge saucer-sized scales. The fierce face, what could be seen of it, was bug-like, with feelers protruding from its skull, a mouth made for rending. Its head was drooped forward, the body slumped. It wasn’t moving. Seconds passed and it didn’t stir. The picture wasn’t frozen, it looked like a live feed from somewhere. A live feed of something pretty dead. 

Jimmy watched the live dead thing, slumped forward, with his complete attention, as if it was the most compelling program in the world.

Jack watched, too, a cold feeling of revulsion grabbing hold of him from the inside, unable to tear his eyes from the creature on the television screen.

Retreating into the kitchen, Emma joining him, the boy entranced, Jack said, “What kind of tv show is that anyway? A movie or something?“

“I don’t know what it is,” said Emma. “It takes over the television once in awhile, not for too long. Then it goes away.”

“But what is it?”

“I don’t know.”

“It must be a prank.”

“I guess so.”

“How long has it been happening?”

She shrugged. “I was a kid when when I first saw it. It’s nothing unusual, just part of everyday life around here.”

“Why does the boy call that, that thing his dad? Is it some kind of joke?”

She led him deeper into the kitchen and said in a private voice, “Jimmy’s father isn’t here anymore. I’m sure you figured that out already. I don’t know why, but Jimmy is using the Specter as a substitute in some way…It’s lonely country out here.”

“The Specter?”

“That’s what people call it. The Midland Specter.”

Jack didn’t say anything. He fought to grasp this strange place he had entered.

From the living room, all he could hear was a static buzz.

Finally, Jack said, “His father…”

“About what you’re imagining. He’s more wed to his bottle than he is to me.” She smiled sadly. “Don’t worry, he hardly ever stops by anymore. He’s got an apartment in town.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Feel sorry for Jimmy. It’s hard on him. I don’t know what to do for him.”

“Why do you let him watch that?”

“I know it’s not going to work in the long run, but right now it seems like it helps him…doesn’t it?”

Jack looked back into the living room, at the creature on the screen, at the boy kneeling with contentment and joy before him. “Yeah, maybe it does.”

#

Sure, Jack stayed the night, in the spare bedroom. It didn’t take much convincing. His wound still hadn’t healed enough, according to his nurse. He wasn’t worried about her near-ex showing up. He could handle himself against a drunk. But he kept the window by his bed propped open just in case.

Jack wanted to tell her the truth, up front, all out. He had taken the first step while they were out on the porch after she put Billy to bed. He dropped the hunting lie and gave her a general purpose hard-luck tale instead. He could tell that pleased her, but he held back the rest. If she knew, she’d be harboring a fugitive. He tried to convince himself that he was protecting her.

Jack needed out to find out what was going on back in town. Where there a manhunt for him? Did Ike escape scot-free? Did they catch him and did he squeal? He had to know.

The chance to find out came faster than he expected. The next morning Emma said one of the heifers was sick and she had to wait for the vet. But she was supposed to run into town and drop off a pie at the Methodist church for the Stan Loakness benefit, Stan’s cancer had returned, and she didn’t know what she was going to do.

“Hey, I’d be happy to run the pie into town for you,” said Jack.

“Really? You wouldn’t mind?”

“Are you kidding? After all you’ve done for me? Anything else you need in town? Groceries or anything?”

“I think we’re fine. Just the deliver the pie and I’ll be a happy camper.”

This wasn’t a big city. There was a level of trust out here that was breathtaking. She took the keys from the rack by the door and handed them to him without a thought.

Jack took the pie and directions written on a piece of butcher paper, and was gone.

It felt good to be on the move again. Jack cranked down the windows, breathing in deeply as the old green pickup rolled along the narrow strip of gravel county road, down a tunnel of corn.

He passed by a church, white steeple stretching to pierce the deep blue sky, and then a little further along was the turnoff that would take him into Midland.

Jack slowed, but didn’t flip the turn signal.

I could keep driving, he thought. Right on out of here.

He came to a full stop. The road was empty in all directions.

I’ve got a good hour or two before she’ll start missing me. I could make the Cities, ditch the truck near the bus station and find a new life for myself. Head west, maybe all the way to California.

Take your foot off the brake.

Give it some gas.

And go.

The truck stayed put.

Jack couldn’t leave his feelings behind. How could it have happened so quickly? How could they have taken over so completely? She trusted him. She cared enough to mend his wounds. She seemed to enjoy his company.

Goddammit.

He shut his eyes and took a long breath. Then his hand moved for the signal, and he made the turn into town.

#

After dropping off the pie, getting a few raised eyebrows from the church ladies when he told them who baked it, Jack cautiously drove around town.

There was no stakeout, no dragnet, no roadblock. Midland looked as normal as it did on the map. Even the bank seemed as if it had returned to its sleepy everyday routine, knowing its money was safe again. He parked by the library and went inside, where he flipped through the little local paper, The Midland Spotlight, whose latest edition predated the holdup. The daily paper from nearby Mankato, the Free Press, carried a brief story, robber gets away with unidentified amount of cash. Get that. Robber. Meaning a solo job. No suspects, no one got a good look at the getaway vehicle.

Because they were all intently watching…

The Specter.

Makes sense, thought Jack, leaving the library. Everyone was so focused on the display window television that they never saw what was happening ten feet behind them. You’d think they’d have gotten used to it by now.

Sad thing was, thought Jack, if I hadn’t panicked, I would have gotten away with the loot, too.

The fear shadows inside him retreated a few paces, push those unwanted bystanders back where they belong.

Jack felt so confident that he walked right into the Palm Garden Bar and ordered a beer.

“Hamms’ it is,” said the bartender, pouring him a sudsy glass. On the wall behind him, a Hamms’ lamp glowed, featuring a waterfall animated with lights. Next to the lamp was a television.

A half dozen townies shared the room with him, a pair at the bar, another group at a table playing cards, two more in overalls swigging beers over by the jukebox, a single at a booth in the corner.

He exchanged some bar talk with the man behind the counter, now that his confidence was up. Baseball, the weather, the crops, just like any other regular.

Halfway through his beer, Jack got up and looked around the joint. Pinball machines, cheesecake calendar, cigarette machine. He ended up at a bulletin board by the door. Rummage sales and meat raffles and a real nice International Harvester tractor for sale.

When he turned back, all the patrons, with the exception of the corner man, had moved up to the bar, eyes locked on the television screen.

The Midland Specter had returned.

But nothing had really changed.

Same slumped, scaled, motionless nightmare.

When it was over, Jack went to the table just as the card-players were about to resume their game.

“Hey, what was the deal with that thing on the idiot box, that creature or whatever it is?”

They gave him a long look, reserved only for newcomers and politicians.

“It’s gotta be a joke or something, right?”

One of the players, who sported a Dekalb feed company cap and was chewing tobacco, spoke up. “You’re not from around here, are you fella?”

Jack waved at the man. “Let’s have it.”

“Have what?”

“I know you got nine theories about this, what else do you loafers do when you hang out in a bar all day? So let’s hear a few of them.”

Jack said it with a wink, and the locals looked amused. The Dekalb man pushed back his cap and leaned forward in his chair. “Joke, like you say” he began, raising one finger. “Guy in a rubber suit trying to pull our legs. Number two: some kind of mass hallucination craziness, we all see it but it ain’t there. Number three: It’s the real deal.”

“Come on.”

“See, the way I figger it, creatures from some other world were all getting ready to take over our planet, Earth. They had landed and maybe set up their HQ in the hills somewhere nearby. They were gonna broadcast their message about how we should surrender, about how it was futile to resist, but something happened, they…succumbed. But their equipment still worked fine, still had enough juice to cover Midland, so it just keeps trying to beam their message into everybody’s homes, over and over and over, see?” He folded his arms and leaned back, as if he was resting his case.

“Aw Jerry, you’re a certified ignoramus,” said another card player. “I saw that monster once on the late, late show. Someone rigged it up to play over our teevees, that’s all. It’s the exact same deal. Just a prank is all it is.” 

“It’s been taking over the tv for years, right?” said Jack. “Why do you still drop everything and look at it when it comes on?”

“Not much else going on around these parts,” replied the Dekalb man.

“Something to do,” added another.

“Quiet little town,” affirmed a third.

The only patron who showed no interest in the conversation was the solitary soul in the corner, who nursed his drink, slumped in a shadowy booth.

Jack wondered what he thought about the Specter, or maybe he didn’t think any further than the bottom of his glass.

#

The sun and moon did a few more turns, and now Jack was playing catch with Jimmy in the farmyard. Jimmy was standing between the chicken coop and barn, the grove behind him, and Jack was stationed down by the corn crib.

After tossing the ball back and forth for awhile, Jack exchanged his glove for a bat and hit Jimmy some fly balls. The old brown bat, looking like it was carved from a fallen tree, felt good in his hands. Electrical tape was wrapped around the handle and there was a nail head protruding from the barrel. Its surface was cracked here and there, but it was still a solid piece of lumber.

The rhythm of hit, catch and throw was hypnotic. Jack’s mind moved to other matters. The peace he felt. The dream his life had become. A dream. Sunshine filling a crumbling, tumbledown life. No plans, no schemes, no angles, just life, just dreams, just Jimmy and Emma and the farm and a new dream of life.

Jack hit the ball too hard. It sailed over Jimmy’s head and bounced into the weeds deep in the grove.

“My fault!” Jack called out. When Jimmy didn’t return with the ball right away, Jack headed over to help him search for it.

It was darker and cooler in the grove. Rusting combines, separators and other farm equipment were scattered through the woods like metal dinosaurs. A junk pile loomed right behind the chicken coop. Next to the junk pile stood a small shed used for smoking meat—Jack could smell the ancient smoke as he passed by. Further back, and to the right, a larger shed, painted barn red with white trim, the paint faded and chipped. This was where the boy was on the hunt.

“Any luck?” Jack asked.

“I can’t find it,” said Jimmy, using his glove to sweep the weeds aside.

Jack looked for a minute or two, coming close to the shed, noticing the padlock. “What’s in here?” he said, tapping the bat on the door.

Jimmy motioned Jack to come closer, and when he leaned in, the boy said in a hushed voice, “We can’t go in there.”

“No?”

“Dad always told me to stay out of that shed. He’d get mad at me if I went anywhere near it.”

“What do you think’s in there?”

Jimmy didn’t say anything, just made a fierce face and bowed his head a bit. 

#

That night, Jack dreamt of a scaled slumping dad breaking out of the shed and shambling out of the dark grove toward the house.

#

The dream shifted in the morning, became full of life and color. His relationship with Emma grew deeper and more meaningful. She kept finding tasks for him to do—repairing a fence, changing the oil in the tractor, painting the back porch. He felt glad to do something to earn his keep. He felt elated to still be around. He rejoiced at his healing wound. He even celebrated Ike. He could be with Ike right now, him and his vocational college degree and bad jokes. They’d be burning through their bank robbery bounty faster than a fire through a field of matchsticks.

Instead, he spent his days with Emma—kind, sweet, thoughtful Emma.

And Jimmy. A sharp, curious kid. They played catch and read Supermancomics and gathered eggs together. But as friends. Jack never got the sense that the boy was looking to him as a father figure.

And always, the Specter, who hadn’t put in an appearance lately. The Specter was neither sharp nor curious, kind nor sweet. Just slumping, in a live dead sort of way. Jack began to entertain charitable feelings toward the Specter. Perhaps they weren’t planning to invade Earth after all…perhaps they took over the televisions to announce a partnership with Earth that would result in centuries of peace and prosperity and happy times. A love invasion, rhododendrons streaming out of their ray guns.

Jack had actually sort of forgot about the apparition, but then one late afternoon he came into the house and caught Emma standing before the television, entranced by the scaled thing on the small screen.

He coughed.

She turned, self-conscious, red-faced.

“I was just…the tv…I couldn’t help…”

“It’s okay,” said Jack. “I saw it happen in town, too. People just seem to stop whatever they’re doing and stare at that thing. Can’t blame you, I guess.”

“It’s part of the fabric of Midland,” she said. “It’s just something you do, like watching the Farmer’s Day parade. There’s nothing more to it than that.” She reached out and touched his arm. “Really, Jack, that’s all there is to it.”

He nodded. “I understand.”

He could see, over her shoulder, the screen taken over by snow, then control of the cathode rays was returned to the local station in Mankato, which was currently airing bowling, live from the Katoland Lanes.

A bowler knocked down all the pins, and the audience cheered.

#

Later, it was pool balls at the Palm Garden, all the colors of a rainbow, knocked into holes on a felt table, met with silence.

Jack played by himself, the bar mostly deserted, a solo at the bar, another slumped in a corner booth.

After Jack sunk the green six ball in the side pocket, he went over to the corner booth, cue resting on his shoulder.

“Howdy,” said Jack, regarding the man, who was all crewcut, unshaven, red-eyed. He wore a washed-out blue work shirt marked with food stains.

The man didn’t say anything. Hard to talk with a glass attached to your mouth.

Jack leaned over the table. “What are you drinking today, partner?”

After slowly setting the drained glass on the dark table, the man said, in a somewhat hoarse voice, “Whiskey.”

Jack motioned to the bartender, who had earlier told him all he needed to know. Matched the photo he found in the bureau drawer at the farm, too, another holiday with a bottle in his hand. Just bits and pieces left of the man in the photo. Still, it was good to get the information firsthand.

Jack fetched the drink and slid it in front of the man, who eyed both the glass and Jack warily.

“I’ve seen you in here before,” Jack began. “Just trying to be friendly. I’m new to the area.”

“Well, what the hell.” He made short work of the drink.

“You live in town, then?” Jack asked.

“Yup.”

“What do you do, then? Everyone I’ve met so far has been a farmer.”

“Do ya see any dirt under my nails?”

“Nope.”

“You used to farm, then.”

“Sure.”

“Dairy? Hogs?”

“Little bit of everything.”

“Ever think of going back to it?”

“Nope.”

“Bet your wife likes city life better than being out in the sticks.”

The man coldly studied his empty glass. “You selling something?”

“Not me.”

“Then what?”

“Just passing the time. Quiet little town.”

“Yeah.”

“I was married once,” Jack said. “Drove me to drink, she did.”

“Amen to that.”

“I never went back.”

“You can never go back.”

“Move on.”

“Movin’ on.”

“Let her go,” said Jack, like an incantation.

“Going, going gone.”

The man slumped again.

Slumped, wed to a bottle.

Jack had been in a slump, too, before his life turned around. Before Mr. Keel deposited him in his future.

Jack stood up straight now, shook his head and left the table in the corner. He returned his cue to the rack, dropped some dough on the counter and headed out into the Midland afternoon.

#

“My arm is good,” Jack told Emma when he returned, “but I don’t want to leave.”

She tossed a handful of cracked corn to geese in a small chicken wire pen. Not looking his way, she said, “There’s no reason for you to leave. Where would you go?”

He didn’t answer right away, so she repeated: “Where would you go, Jack?”

“I dunno. Back to the Cities, probably. Rent a room somewhere. Try to find a job.”

“Alone.”

“Yeah.”

She tossed more grain. “I can’t promise you anything.”

“You know people will talk.”

“I’ve already seen the worst of their sideways glances, the comments under their breath.”

“The pie ladies already started with me.”

“The pie ladies.”

One of the geese flapped its wings.

“I don’t care what others say,” said Jack. “What do they know?”

“Can’t live your life that way.”

“No, not that way.”

“I’m awfully fond of you, Jack.”

“I don’t want to leave you, Emma.”

“No reason for you to leave. No reason for you to go anywhere at all.”

#

That night they shared a bed for the first time. It wasn’t awkward, it seemed natural, like they had been there before. Maybe in their minds they already had.

They lay there in the dark, just holding hands for now, crickets making the darkness seem less dark, the moon out of sight, the heavens gazing down on them with gentle starlit eyes.

Jack felt his heart reach ebb tide. It should be racing, shouldn’t it? The adrenaline, the excitement, the desire?

But his heart was filled with peace, and he reckoned the filling was made out of love.

As they held love in their hands, another sound joined the crickets. A soft crunching sound. Jack tried to place it.

When he did, he sat up abruptly, his heart peaceful no more.

“What is it?” Emma whispered.

The sound was tires on gravel.

There were no headlights. The car was running dark, down the long driveway to the farmyard.

Now Emma sat up, too.

They held the covers up to their chins like children.

The car passed by their window. Too dark to make out any detail. It swung around to the back of the house.

Jack waited for the car door, the heavy steps up the walk.

Maybe it was Ike, come to drag him back into his old life.

The pie ladies, shock troops of the Midland Morals Squad.

Yeah, the third possibility, which was actually the first possibility, dropped down the list because Jack didn’t want to think about it.

Mr. Slumped Drunk come home to check on the little woman. Jack thought maybe he would have been better off leaving him be at the Palm Garden. Maybe all he did was nudge his memory, remind him that he did have a wife and son at home.

They waited, silently, hearts going crazy in tandem.

A car door slammed.

They jumped involuntarily, as one.

Hard shoes on concrete. Sort of a half-walk, half-shuffle.

Jack drove an image of a shambling, scaled creature from his mind.

Then a pause.

Expecting a knock.

Silence.

Even the crickets seemed to hold their breath.

Jack formed his hands into fists.

And then…and then… not a knock, not a knock at all.

Footsteps again.

A car door, whupping shut again.

The firing of an engine.

Tires on dry gravel.

The dark vehicle crawled by their open bedroom window.

And then it was gone, down the road into the unending darkness.

“Him…” Jack began.

“Hush…” Emma whispered.

The night that had embraced them returned, slowly, and their hands intertwined again.

Jack made a move to get closer, but Emma gently pushed him back.

“Not tonight,” she said. “I have an imagination.”

#

Jack didn’t go into town the next day, even though there wasn’t any sugar in the pantry. They didn’t mention the visitor. It seemed like a dream.

“My pop dressed like Santa Claus for Christmas,” said Jimmy, tossing corn cobs at the shed door that afternoon. They had been hunting for the missing baseball, with no luck. “And as a ghost on Halloween.”

“Sounds like a fun guy.”

“Jack, what holiday do you think the Specter is for?”

Twisting the padlock, unable to pry it open, Jack said, “I don’t know, Jimmy. I really don’t know.”

#

Farm days are long and full, so much time had passed before the sun sunk again and the fields and out buildings were overtaken by shadows, by the fathoms-deep farmland night.

They were in bed again, Jack and Emma, and they lay quietly, hand in hand, listening, listening.

It grew late, listening to the total night, and then Jack whispered, “I think we’re okay.”

It took awhile for Emma to concur, and then Jack could feel that peaceful atmosphere fill the room, sunshine beaming into the abandoned farm house of his heart.

“Emma…”

“Jack…”

He came to her, began to move on top of her, and then…

The sound of static intruded upon their peace. Static.

From the door, the bluish glow of a television screen. It hadn’t been on before. At least he didn’t think so.

“Must be Jimmy,” said Emma. I’ll put him back to bed.”

She got up and padded into the living room.

Jack didn’t hear her say a word, no gentle scolding, no loving goodnight.

Silence.

He waited for her to come back.

Maybe she scooped up little Jimmy, brought him upstairs and was busy tucking him in, telling him a bedtime story.

He called her name.

There was no response.

The television was still on, static and blue.

Jack waited some, then waited no more.

He left their bed, stepping slowly toward the door, into the living room, the blue.

Emma was there, kneeling before the screen.

Before a slumped scaled thing.

He came up behind her.

“Emma?”

Her gaze never faltered.

“Emma…”

Her gaze was little Jimmy’s gaze. She watched the Midland Specter with her complete attention, enraptured, as if it was the only game in town.

What did she see in it?

Did she see it as the townspeople did? Just a simple distraction, a parade, a point of interest, a tradition?

Or was it filling a hole inside her?

“Emma…”

#

Jack went out into the night, heading across the farmyard to the grove. As he walked through the dark weeds, his foot hit something hard. He bent down, scooped up the baseball and gave it a long heave back toward the barn.

At the shed, he fought with the padlock for a few seconds, then found a heavy metal rod by the junk pile and broke the door away from its hinges.

There wasn’t any metal table in the shed, just colored glass bottles, pints and quarts with pretty labels, mostly empty. No television camera, no slumping nightmare scaled thing. Dirty shelves, mud floor, musty boozy air, the faint odor of urine.

No Specter, just ghosts of the past.

Jack left the shed and returned to the house.

To where Emma still held her vigil.

Emma…

Jack turned away, grabbed the keys to the truck and some folding money out of the cookie jar, then headed back outside, down to the corn crib, down to where the green truck was parked.

He got in, flipped the key and fired up the Ford.

Backed up, spun the wheel and drove up the driveway, tires crunching on gravel, headlights off, until he reached the main road.

He stepped on the gas, tugged at the headlight knob, then was off down the little dark lane toward town.

The cornfields were like sentinels, like soldiers guarding the old farmhouses along the road, windows lit with the blue tv lights. Spending their long nights in the presence of a strangely comforting apparition, maybe the only thing these people have ever been able to really count on.

A troubled son or daughter, a wife who isn’t the woman you married, lonely people desperately yearning for a friend, everyone has something missing in their lives, some vacant sorry space that begged to be filled. It wasn’t boredom that drew folks to the Specter, it was that need.

The takeover of Earth had worked out after all, Jack thought with a sad smirk. The Specter’s home planet, probably some arid, barren joint in the middle of nowhere space, a Midland of the cosmos, would be proud.

Jack switched on the radio.

Turned the glowing dial.

Everywhere, static.

Everywhere, Specter.

#

When he came to the turnoff that led into Midland, Jack braked, then stopped completely on the desolate after-hours road.

He looked toward town, then stared deep into the rearview mirror.

Jack didn’t slump, he sat up straight.

And put himself in motion.

Gaining speed, going away, the static slowly diminishing as the truck ate up the miles, and then it was just Jack, alone again, with the night and his thoughts, aching holes in his arm and his heart, heading toward that old filthy floor future, any world good enough as long as it was beyond invasion.

Location

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P.O. Box 190106 Burton, Michigan 48519

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