by Chris Rutkowski
I unlocked the door and opened it, cautiously looking around the diner. I wasnít sure what I expected to find, but I had a nagging feeling that I should have been looking for something.
It was stupid, I know, but I very rarely have dreams at all, much less dreams that were as vivid and bizarre as the one last night. It seemed so real, and I can remember a good portion of it as easily as I can remember how I cooked up the blue plate special for everyone for dinner yesterday. (It was a hearty beef stew, which I had slowly simmered for five hours since noon, adding onions, potatoes, celery, tomatoes and carrots at times I thought were appropriate.)
But after the dinner crowd had gone home ...
I seem to remember cleaning up as usual, scouring the griddle, washing the pots and pans by hand and sorting the cutlery when it came out of the dishwasher. The only others in the diner were Hank and Vlad, who were at their usual table in the corner, half-gazing out the window into the blackness and half-continuing their argument about the nature of reality. One or the other of them would occasionally get up to pour himself another cup of coffee from the pot I kept on for them, then plod back to the table.
"Justice just isnít being done," I heard Hank telling Vlad as I hung up my dishtowel and reached for my mop. He was waving his spoon in the air to either make his point or simply annoy Vlad.
"You can say that again," Vlad responded. "The kids steal a car or rob a drugstore, but when theyíre caught and put before a judge, they get let off because of legal technicalities or because their shyster lawyer claims Ďitís societyís faultí."
Hank was a short, stocky guy who taught kindergarten in the new school down the road. He looked like a little bear with his hairy hands and black bristles protruding around the back of his collar down his back. His unruly dark hair added to the effect that he was some sort of Ďwild man,í but he was actually probably the most good-natured fellow in town and had a way with kids that was unrivaled in the school. The rugrats loved him and enjoyed the way he told stories and entertained them each day.
Vlad was a taller version of Hank, and much older. He was over six feet tall and very lanky, with a greying beard and a drawn-out face that suggested he was Rasputinís long-lost brother. Despite being married (and divorced) three times, he had fathered no kids of his own and was not that close to his former stepchildren, who despised him for one reason or another. Of quick wit and uncommon intelligence, Vlad ran the town library and was the most well-read person I knew. He had escaped to our town after his last marital calamity and spent most of his time in his small two-room house, reading or listening to old jazz recordings from his huge vinyl record collection.
I stopped mopping and joined in on the topic. They were obviously going on about the three 20-year-olds who recently robbed the grocery down the block. One had a sawed-off shotgun and managed to pump off a round in the direction of a bag boy who had tried to chase them. The boyís funeral was yesterday.
"Did the kid get off, after all?" I asked. I hadnít paid that much attention to the gossip from the courthouse.
Hank snorted. "Of course he did."
"Itís so stupid the way none of the bureaucrats seem to have much in the way of common sense," Vlad said. "Something that seems so logical to the three of us when we discuss it ends up being the last thing that would ever happen in any given circumstance!"
Hank bobbed his head in agreement.
"Yep," he said. "It seems like we three are the most rational people on the planet!"
I had to stifle a laugh.
"And that says something!" I added with a grin.
Vlad looked over at me with thoughtful expression on his face.
"You know," he said quietly, "I wonder if thereís something to that?"
"What? That we are the most rational people on Earth?" Hank asked.
"I think Iíd be scared at that prospect," I noted mournfully. It was one thing to complain about life, but this was starting to get silly.
Vlad was cradling his coffee cup in his hands, thinking.
"Doesnít it ever strike you as odd," he began, "that we seem to be the only ones around who can see through some of the injustices others take for granted?"
I leaned my mop against the wall and sat down at a table beside them.
"Like what?" I wanted to know.
Vladís brow furrowed as he formulated his theory. "Like ... like yesterday, when old Mrs. Henderson was here complaining about her pension cheque."
That was still clear in my memory. She had been in for lunch and waved her monthly sustenance at us, pointing out that the cost of living had gone up, but not the amount on her cheque. To the three of us, it had been obvious that such an indexing should be made, but when she had called the government office to complain, she had received only a run-around and tactful replies about policies and regulations.
"Yes, pretty sad," I said.
"Or the judgeís decision regarding your last divorce," Hank piped up, pointing a finger towards Vlad. "Didnít he increase the support you had to pay, even though you were on welfare already and your wife had moved in with a millionaire?"
Vlad squirmed with the memory. "Yes, and she wasnít even in the courtroom that day because they were on vacation in Europe."
"But that was my second wife," he corrected, "not my third."
Hank drew back in his chair, turning his shoulders to face me.
"Didnít you complain about how stupid up people were the last time your supplies order got messed up," he asked of me.
I laughed. Now.
I had been really mad a few weeks ago when I unpacked my regular delivery of produce to find it consisted entirely of cases of rutabagas. Thirteen boxes, mostly crushed.
When I called the shipper to complain about it, all I got was an audible version of a shrug.
"Didnít it occur to you that a shipment for a small diner shouldnít consist entirely of rutabagas?" I had asked in desperation.
"No," was the reply.
I had to agree with Hank and Vlad. People were stupid.
"Thereís another example," Hank was saying, pointing to the small TV I had on the shelf in the corner above the cash register. The screen was showing a news story discussing the results of the latest political poll.
He interpreted for us. "Heís been shown to be sleazy, lying and incompetent, yet he has a 53 per cent confidence rating!"
"Amazing," Vlad sighed.
"Oh, thatís not that amazing, boys," I said, leaning an elbow on the table. "Itís pretty much what I expect from the way the world spins."
Hank got up and walked over to get more coffee.
"Youíre just desensitized to it," Vlad said. He stretched and then ran his fingers through his hair, fluffing the grease. "Weíre still in the cynical stage."
Hank was pouring a cup for me, too. He handed it to me and sat down, facing me.
"You know," he said. "What if itís all true ?"
I blinked. "What if what is true ?"
He was stirring his spoon carefully in the cup, thinking.
"What if the three of us just happen to be some sort of genetic mutants?" he asked, probably serious. "What if weíre somehow ... different from everyone else?"
"Thatís ridiculous," I said instinctively.
"That may be part of it," Vlad answered him.
I turned, disbelievingly, and glared at him. "Now you arenít making sense!"
"No, no, hear me out," Vlad said, holding his hands, palms out, facing us. "Look, there has to be some reason why things seem simple to us and not to anyone else. Maybe our brains are different from others."
"But then why arenít we obviously more intelligent than other people?" Hank wondered out loud, still stirring. "I mean, weíre not rocket scientists, and none of us have figured out how to get rich."
I couldnít believe the direction this conversation was going. But it was somehow appealing ...
"There are different kinds of intelligence," Vlad explained. "Being able to solve math problems is just one aspect. Social intelligence is one completely different kind, for example, and there are others. We might be tremendously intuitive, but not necessarily geniuses."
I scratched my ear the way I always did while thinking about a problem.
"So ... what? Weíre some special breed of human?" I asked, carrying his argument further. I figured it might have been one way to kill the line of thought entirely.
Unfortunately, that got Hank to thinking again.
"Or not human at all," he stated, matter-of-factly.
Now I knew he was bonkers.
"Oh, so weíre aliens, are we?" I retorted. I laughed out loud. "And what are we doing here together, in a diner, in a god-forsaken part of a cold continent on a rocky planet called Earth?"
"Actually, we thought we could hide you better this way," a soft voice answered from the doorway.
I jumped about a foot in the air, badly startled. Iím not normally that nervous, but that voice gave me a real fright for some reason and I even dropped my coffee cup, which fell loudly to the floor and broke into pieces.
Hankís jaw was on the table.
"Who - uh - who are you?" he asked, as shocked as I was.
Our visitor smiled. "Who do I look like?" he replied.
That was what freaked us out the most. He looked like an alien.
Well, maybe not a Ďstandardí alien. I mean, he didnít look like the little grey guys that are in all the TV shows and movies about Roswell and alien autopsies and people getting interrupted at Thanksgiving dinner by extraterrestrial abductors.
For one thing, he was wearing a cap, like the blue ones worn during the Civil War. The rest of him was covered in a dark blue uniform of some sort; his short coat had a weird collar like a Nehru jacket, and there was some kind of sash over his shoulder.
But it was his eyes which were the most unusual. They were elongated, almond-shaped things and seemed so penetrating they seemed to be floating off his bald head. His face was fairly pasty, and he had a small nose and a mouth with very weak lips. His smile didnít seem evil, but it wasnít all that pleasurable, either.
He also wasnít all that short. Judging from where he stood in the doorway, he might have been about the same height as Hank.
But he mightíve been an alien alright.
The expression on Vladís face was peculiar. He was shocked, too, but his forehead was deeply furrowed and he was obviously thinking about something.
"Barney and Betty Hill," he said, after a few moments.
I looked at him. "What? You know this guyís name?"
"Yes, that was us," the alien replied. "You have a good memory for details, like they did."
Vlad glanced over at me. "No, no, he looks exactly like the aliens which abducted Betty and Barney Hill back in 1961. They were supposedly the first abductees; I have the book about them, which has their drawings. Their case started it all, but most later abductees reported anything but aliens with this description."
"Weíre dreaming," Hank monotoned.
"Thatís my vote, too," I said, instinctively bending down to pick up the pieces of my cup.
"That is one way of looking at it," the alien noted. He walked stiffly towards us, stopping a few feet away from me.
"I donít have much time," he explained. His voice had perfect intonation, and had a sing-song quality to it, resonating almost like a chorus. Maybe it was artificial, even though his mouth moved along with it.
He gestured with his hands, also pasty in colour. "Itís been my job to monitor all of you, and when you began speculating about your origins, I had to intervene. This is not going as well as had been hoped."
Hank was totally taken in by all this, and Vlad was treating this as an intellectual exercise. But I decided I wasnít about to take this one at face value.
"Right!" I chortled. "Youíve been monitoring us. Thatís about as ĎB-movieí as you can get. I think youíve been watching too much FOX."
"But itís a nice yarn," I added as I gathered the pieces of my cup in my palm. "Iíll give you a free cup of coffee for your story, if you want."
He sat down on a chair near me, the creases on his uniform making a perfect right angle at his knees.
"Oh, I donít expect you to believe me," he said. "That was part of why youíre here."
"And why are we here, then?" asked Vlad, stroking his beard.
In response, the alien lowered his gaze from us for the first time. It was almost as if he was showing some resignation.
"It was a mistake," he said, sorrowfully.
"A mistake?" I echoed, standing up and walking over to the garbage can with the broken cup shards and dumping them in.
I shook my hands to get rid of some tiny ceramic particles still clinging to my hand. "Weíre a mistake, is that it?"
"Well, accident may be a better word," he replied, turning to follow me as I returned. Those eyes sure were mesmerizing if you gave them a chance.
He continued, "You see, our race has been studying your culture for many millennia. In fact, this planet is an ideal laboratory for our scientists as they become educated."
"As they become educated?" Hank inquired. "You mean Earth is a school?"
"Haw!" I liked that one. "And we were just smokiní in the boysí room!"
The alien was not amused. "Oh, no," he retorted, stiffly. "More like an undergraduate teaching facility."
"Okay," I said decisively. Enough was enough. "Whatís the deal? I donít buy that youíre from outer space, but if you are, and if you start talking about doing any of that Ďanal probeí stuff on us, Iíve got a baseball bat behind the counter thatíll probe your face off!"
Vlad and Hank were shocked at my outburst.
"Easy," Vlad said, "you donít know what they can do ..."
The alien was unmoved by my threat.
"No, Iím here just to apologize and make a slight correction," he said.
That floored me.
"Apologize?" I meekly asked.
He looked at me with those big eyes, a new radiance on his face.
"Why, yes," he said.
"What would you have to apologize for?" Vlad asked sarcastically. "I thought superior beings were beyond reproach."
Our guest looked uncomfortable with that comment.
"Well - er - normally," he answered. "But ... it was a clerical error."
"What!" I resounded.
"An innocent one," he said defensively. "You see, we routinely alter genetic coding of developing organisms, including our own offspring, and ó well, you three were not meant to be who you are ó or where you are."
I knew my cynicism would come in handy some day.
"Oh?" I taunted him. "So what are we? Jedi Knights?"
He looked at me quizzically. "Iím afraid I donít understand your reference," he said. "But you do come from a rather special lineage, if that is what you are implying."
Hank was getting into it now, too. Teasing aliens was starting to be fun. "So whatís wrong with us, anyway?" he implored. "Skin not gray enough?"
The alien rolled his eyes, with an expression that must be universal.
"Iím not sure why Iím even bothering to explain this to you," he said. "We took this very seriously when it occurred."
He turned to Vlad and said, patiently, "You were raised as a spacefaring engineer. But when the instructions for your assignment were prepared, you were inadvertently transferred into the wrong series and your instructions deleted. They had considered your termination, but it was felt that your superior intellectual ability and brain processes would allow us a particularly good experiment, probing terrestrial society."
Vlad stroked his beard. "Ah," he replied, absently.
"And me?" asked Hank.
The alien shifted his chair to face him. "You were originally a machine interface specialist. You could have been the most important crew member on a generational starship, working directly with what you would call the onboard computer."
"Glad I upgraded to a Pentium 3 last week," Hank observed.
I was snickering at this point. This was about the best I had seen and heard in a long time.
"I have to admit it," I said. "Youíre good. Starships and onboard computers; thatís pretty wild. And I suppose I was Mr. Spock."
His gaze was becoming less penetrating. In fact, it looked like he was withering under my verbal sparring.
"Oh, no," he began, then added, acting flustered, "... Sir." He bowed slightly.
I was about to launch another zinger when he quickly interrupted: "But I can assure you that everything is being done to correct these errors. I have filed notice on your behalf with the appropriate jurisdictions and I understand that they will hold deliberations soon, once the backlog of case files is cleared."
"Iím sure itís only a matter of time," he added. "After all, itís only been about fifteen cycles."
What might have been his eyebrows slanted for a second or two. "Of course, thatís about forty-five or fifty of your Earth years."
"In other words," Hank said, "you goofed."
The alien stood up. "Our system of bureaucracy is very efficient," he defended, slightly annoyed. "It has kept us moving forward for tens of thousands of years. Slight misplacements of people and resources are to be expected as we progress."
"Besides," he sniffed with his small flat nose, "the memory blocks placed upon you have kept your realization of this situation hidden, until now. A minor adjustment will repair that."
And with that, he vanished. No bright lights, saucers or beaming-out. Just gone.
The three of us sat there for what seemed like a few seconds, dumbfounded and not sure of what to think.
Then ó I was in my bed, waking up this morning as I did every morning.
It sure seemed like a dream. A very weird one.
Now, looking around the diner, I was half-trying to find something that would prove it was real instead.
My occasional maintenance man, Joe, had been in already as usual, and had cleaned up. The chairs were arranged neatly around the tables again and he had polished the floor to an even sheen. The trash was emptied and all the dishes had been taken out of the dishwasher. Joe had been thorough, as he always was.
I put in a new filter and began making coffee. As it brewed, I tried to remember how the evening had really went. I couldnít remember a lot of it, and I had a pounding headache. Something told me that Hank and Vlad had talked with me for a while, and then left as usual. I had gone home and collapsed into bed. Nothing out of the ordinary.
The red light blinked on and I took hold of the pot of coffee, ready to pour myself a cup. As I lifted the weight, I felt a sharp pain in the palm of my hand. I put the pot back and examined my hand. I had a little sliver embe dded there, with a pinprick of blood.
I found a pair of tweezers in a drawer by the cash register and began working with it to get out the sliver. After a few minutes, I gently slid it out. It was a shard of ceramic material, like from a coffee cup.
I stood there for a few minutes, then reached in the drawer for a Band-Aid.
I poured myself a cup of coffee and sat down.
What happened last night? I thought. Then I thought better of it.
"Nawwww," I said out loud.