“What We Found”
by Miranda Suri
My story starts like a bad joke.
A drunk, a runaway, and a rich man walk into a bar. Well, not a bar, but a rusted, run-down gas station in a sea of sand and sepia.
Or maybe it starts more like a porno.
A rich man pulls his BMW into a gas station at dusk. Backdrop: the desert sky, stained with a fuchsia sunset. Foreground: a pretty girl, all tumbling black hair, frayed jean shorts, and desperation.
The man rolls down the window and she leans in slow, keeping her eyes empty, giving away nothing. Her cleavage strains against her tank top.
“Hey mister, can I hitch a ride?”
It started like that, yeah. But it’s not what you think.
First off, the driver nods politely, not once looking at my tits. Second, he’s not alone. There’s an old drunk in the passenger seat. The smell of cheap beer and Cheetos rolls off him as he clambers into the back to make way for me.
I get in and shut the door. The automatic locks thunk down and I eye the driver. He smiles and we pull away from the gas station, the desert opening to swallow us whole.
The car hugs the highway, wheels whipping us west into the gaping maw of the setting sun. I frame the scene with my fingers and picture a camera panning wide before zooming in on the car, a speck in the rising darkness.
The car is definitely one of the nicer rides I’ve hitched. There’s seat warmers and the buff feel of real leather, and I’m relieved to put the milky-eyed attendant and his lonely gas station in the rearview.
I risk a glance back at the drunk. He takes a long swig from a beer. A few amber beads dribble down and catch on his grey-stubbled chin. He doesn’t seem to notice. After awhile, he starts to hum.
I’m almost sure he and the driver aren’t going to hassle me.
“What’s your name?” the driver asks.
“Carina,” I lie, picking a name at random.
The driver flashes another perfect smile and I notice he’s really handsome. His dark hair looks recently cut and it’s gelled, but not in that gross crunchy way. His button-down is new, but rumpled–like he’s been wearing it a few days. Polished cuff links wink at his wrists. I wonder what they’re worth.
“I’m Donovan,” he says. “And that’s Lou.” He motions with his chin toward the drunk in the back. “I picked him up outside Cleveland and we’ve been riding together ever since.”
Lou is old. He’s wearing a stained Grateful Dead T-shirt and faded blue jeans, two sizes too big. Goodwill, I’d guess. Everything about him sags. Everything but his smile.
I frown, suspicious. Only fools and five year olds smile like that.
Lou’s humming grows louder, a muffled soundtrack in the silent car. It’s some song I’m sure I know but can’t quite place.
“I’m from Washington D.C.,” Donovan volunteers. “How about you?”
I think about the trailer my mom and I shared outside Austin, which I found empty after school one day when I was only fourteen. Or the foster home I lasted two days in before hitting the road. Or the libraries where I spent hours crouched in dim corners with hoarded books, one eye peeled for the crazies. Or all the theaters I’d snuck into, hiding behind the seats after the last show, hunkering among forgotten tumbleweeds of popcorn and roach carcasses.
I have no good answer to Donovan’s question, so I stay quiet.
Donovan takes this in stride. “Well, where are you headed then?”
“I’m going all the way to California.” He continues as if my sullen silences aren’t rude. “You’re welcome to ride with us as long as you like.”
Lou’s humming blossoms into a tune. The words are mumbled and erratic. His voice cracks in and out. I still can’t place the song.
Donovan seems to recognize it, though, and he smiles. I notice he’s got long lashes and sad eyes. I force myself not to care. Lou and Donovan both have stories, but I don’t want to know them.
Antsy, I inch a little closer to the passenger side door, wondering how it would feel to hit the pavement at 65 miles per hour. Would I die right away, a smear of organs and fluids and flesh on the asphalt, or would I just be maimed? I lick my lips, stroking one finger over the door handle, then another.
Out in the desert, dusk gobbles the cacti one by one. Fingers of black and grey creep across the sky like a blight. The road streams beneath us. My hand rubs back and forth across the smooth metal of the door handle. Back and forth.
I flip the silver toggle and the door unlocks with a clunk.
Donovan glances at me.
All I have to do is curl one finger around the handle, pull just a little, lean to the right–
A shooting star appears ahead in the sky, growing larger, brighter.
Donovan leans forward and the car starts to slow as he peers out the windshield. Curious, I let my hand slide back into my lap.
Lou’s broken song falters and he leans forward too, wrinkled fingers clutching the back of my seat.
“Look at that beauty,” he whistles.
The star is growing in brilliance, and I start to wonder. It’s not streaking past, high above this sad marble of a world.
Maybe it’s an asteroid and the end is nigh.
Donovan slows the car and guides it smoothly onto the shoulder. We sit in the dark and watch the star fall.
There’s a brief flare of red and suddenly the star–or whatever it is–seems way closer. I hug myself.
“It’s going to hit, I think.” There’s no need to whisper, but Donovan does.
The light is intense now, so bright it almost hurts my eyes.
“Maybe we should–” I start to say, but I’m not sure what we should do, so I let the hush in the car drink up all my words.
Donovan seems so surprised I’ve spoken that he momentarily pulls his gaze from the star and looks at me. I meet his eyes and know I was right. He is sad.
The star grows brighter and brighter. No longer white, but yellow.
“Luminescent,” I whisper, liking the taste of the word in my mouth.
The star is close now. It fills the sky, falling, falling, falling. It’s so unexpected and beautiful and terrifying that I hold my breath until it hurts. Then the star disappears behind a butte. A thud echoes across the desert. I feel the earth shiver. Or maybe it’s just me.
Then there’s nothing.
Whatever that thing was, it’s hit and there was no apocalypse. No explosion. The world’s still here. Nothing’s changed.
I sit back, flushed and a little disappointed.
Donovan seems energized, though. “It came down up ahead. Let’s check it out.”
“Whaddya think it was?” Lou asks.
Donovan doesn’t seem to have an answer. He pulls the BMW back onto the highway and accelerates. It’s not long before we encounter debris strewn over the road and see a cloud of dust drifting across the BMW’s twin beams.
We slow and soon it’s too hard to continue through the rubble. Donovan shuts the car off. The beams drop into darkness. I blink and realize there’s a faint glow coming from somewhere just off the road.
“I think we should investigate,” Donovan says.
Lou belches and Donovan seems to take this as an affirmation of his plan. He opens the door and gets out. No less eagerly, though certainly less steadily, Lou follows.
Donovan leans back in. “You coming, Carina?”
It’s cold now that the sun’s gone down and goosebumps rise across my bare arms and legs as I exit the car. Donovan notices and offers me the blazer draped over the back of his seat.
I shrug it on. It smells of expensive cologne and feels soft against my arms. The only thing softer I’ve ever felt was the skin on the bottom of my baby sister’s feet, delicate and miraculous. I close my eyes against the last memory of her, still and cold in her crib, moonlit beneath the trailer’s cracked window.
Fade out, I think. Let the camera pan wide.
I follow Donovan into the desert.
We walk away from the car and toward whatever’s fallen from the sky. We find it sitting in a crater about a mile off the road.
It is not a shooting star.
Lou whistles. “Hoo-wee!” He staggers down into the yawning hole, rocks skittering away from his clumsy, booted feet.
Wait, I want to say. But as I stare at the thing that has crashed into the desert I can’t find my voice.
Donovan stands beside me. I think he’s silently watching Lou whoop and scramble around in the crater, until I look at him and realize he’s crying.
Tears shine against his cheeks and in his wide, dark eyes. I’ve never seen someone look so happy and so sad at the same time. I can’t even imagine what that would feel like.
Watching him cry, I think I should hate Donovan and his beautiful, mournful joy. I don’t though, and for no reason I can say, I slip my hand into his.
He squeezes once, hard, then lets go.
“What do you think it is?” I whisper.
He smiles. “You know what it is, Carina.”
“My name is Lori,” I tell him. You don’t lie to someone when you’re standing in the loneliest desert under the loneliest sky staring at an alien space ship that’s crashed to earth.
He takes this in stride. “Okay, Lori. Want to check it out?”
I’m not sure I do, but I follow Donovan down nonetheless. My heart is beating hard and my mouth is dry. I try to pretend this is a movie, that there’s a camera lens between me and the world, but it’s not working.
So I take a deep breath and focus on the spaceship.
It’s about fifteen feet wide and at least four times as high. It’s a little like a rocket, but it’s got a corkscrew shape and it’s iridescent, a peacock feather cast in metal. It is beautiful and impossible.
I hesitate when we get to the bottom of the crater, but Donovan walks right up to the ship. I hold my breath, waiting. Maybe the doors will slide open and tentacles will snatch him inside where he’ll be probed and eaten alive.
But nothing happens. The ship just sits there.
Donovan sets his hand against it. This seems like a stupid thing to do–the metal must be incredibly hot from entering the atmosphere–but Donovan starts to laugh.
“It’s cool,” he says. His voice is alive with awe. “It’s not hot at all. And look at this metal. Not a scratch on it.” He steps back, shaking his head. “Incredible.” His smile is huge and suddenly he looks as drunk as Lou. “God, Lori. There’s life out there.”
I know I should feel something, but I’m numb. This night is not unfolding how I imagined.
I nod at Donovan and walk back to the top of the crater. I breathe deep, smelling creosote bushes and ocotillo. They are the smells of my childhood, though, and do not comfort me.
Lou’s finished his drunken stagger around the ship. He comes up and collapses beside me, drawing deep on his beer. I’m surprised there’s anything left in the bottle.
“Maybe it’s a satellite. Or some government project.” He grins at me. “You know, baby girl. Top secret.” He winks.
“It’s not,” Donovan calls up to us. “It’s from another world. Another universe.”
“What makes you so sure?” Lou asks. He doesn’t sound argumentative, just curious.
“Well, I mean, just look at it!” He touches the side of the ship again, as if he can’t believe it’s real. “This is happening. It’s happening right now.”
Somehow, I find my voice. “What do you think they’re doing here?” I envision enslavement, a scorched earth policy, alien-human breeding programs.
Some of Donovan’s excited glow fades at my question. Maybe he’s thinking the same thing.
“Proly just want to be friends,” Lou slurs. “Or maybe they’re lost.” He drains the beer bottle. “Like us.”
Donovan looks at him. “What makes you think we’re lost?”
Lou smiles, affable. “Ain’t we?”
Donovan leaves the side of the ship and comes up to sit with us. The ground is dusty and his nice pants are sure to get dirty. He doesn’t seem to care.
“Lost.” He rolls the word around. “I guess we are.”
Out in the night, an owl hoots. The desert sand is gritty and I like to think of it as red. I rub some between my fingers, imagining how it stains my skin. The sand’s been here forever, never changing, always just itself.
“I’ve been hitching across this country since before I can remember,” Lou says. “Seems to me most folks are lost. They just don’t know it.” He hiccoughs. “For a lost man, you’re a good sort, though. You picked me up, after all.”
I consider Lou for the first time. You know, really consider him. It must be hard for an old drunk with no home, I realize. At least I don’t have to worry about getting rides.
He starts humming again. It’s that same song from the car, our soundtrack. But now I recognize it.
I remember watching old movies when I was alone at night in the trailer. I remember Audrey Hepburn strumming the ukulele, singing that song on the fire escape, and hoping for a better life. The memory makes me want to smile, or cry, or both. But I can’t seem to do either.
We stare at the gleaming impossibility of the spaceship and listen to Lou for awhile. I imagine that when he was young and sober he might have had a nicer voice.
With no preamble, Donovan says, “I’m dying.”
All the beauty leeches out of the night, out of the song and the marvel of the spaceship. My cheeks sting, like when my mom used to slap me, her nails scraping my face raw.
“I found out four days ago,” Donovan says. “I’ve got a few months left, maybe.”
He sounds really calm and for a minute I sort of envy him.
“Anyway, I got in my car and started driving west. Haven’t hardly stopped since. Thought I’d like to see the Pacific again before I die. Maybe meet some interesting people. Just live.”
There’s a short silence. Then Lou claps him on the shoulder. “Life’s a fickle bitch, man.”
I sneak a glance at Donovan’s face. He’s nodding absently, but his eyes are fixed on the spaceship. I wish I could tell him how unfair it is.
Instead, I blurt out, “I’m not lost.”
They both look at me in surprise.
“I know exactly what I’m looking for.” I have no idea why I’m suddenly babbling like this, but I can’t seem to stop. I barrel ahead, fingers itching at my thighs. “Yeah. That’s right. I know what I want. I want to kill myself but I’m too afraid to do it. So I get into cars with strange men and hope they’ll do it for me.”
The look on Donovan’s face is aghast and I know then that he’s really and truly the kind of guy who would pick up a girl at a gas station in the middle of nowhere and think of nothing but driving her where she wants to go.
“Oh, Lori,” he says. He looks like he wants to hug me but isn’t sure if I want him to. I’m not sure either.
Lou shrugs, unimpressed. “Maybe,” he says. “Maybe you’re gettin’ in all those cars looking for an end, or maybe not. Maybe you’re looking for a beginning. A way out.” This sounds wise, until he belches.
Hopelessness seeps through me, like water wriggling underground in the desert.
“What differences does it make now?” I say bitterly, gesturing at the spaceship. It’s still sitting there, doing nothing. “There’s freaking aliens now. Nothing matters anymore.”
As soon as I say these words, I know they’re a lie. In fact, I know the opposite is true. Everything matters more.
Donovan looks thoughtful, but no one says anything.
We watch the spaceship all night.
The darkness begins to fade, gentle and quiet, shadows retreating from each fold of land. My anger retreats too, leaving something else in its wake. Something fragile and new. Despite all the books I’ve read and movies I’ve seen, despite the words and images I’ve scavenged and treasured, I don’t have a name for this feeling.
It might be hope. Or it might be something even better.
When dawn comes, it floods the desert with soft ochre light, glinting against the metal casing of the spaceship. I’d half expected the morning to reveal the ship as something fanciful glimpsed by moonlight, like Titania’s fairies, but it’s still there, as real and undeniable as rock and sand.
I consider this and listen to Lou snore. He lies beside me, arms cast out to either side. His Grateful Dead T-shirt has pulled up slightly, exposing a tanned belly furred with grey hair.
I think it’s weird that the most eventful thing to happen all night is an old drunk passing out. Surely someone else saw the spaceship crash. Where are the Feds? And the ship is still just sitting there. No sign of a door. No sign there’s even anyone–anything?–inside.
And what if it did open? What then? What would we find? We all want something different, I know. Life. Death. A story. An adventure. An end. A new start.
I chew on these thoughts while the sun comes fully up. Crickets start to buzz and trill. The new day will be a hot one.
There’s a million reasons to get up and do something. Leave. Knock on the ship. Call someone official. Something. Anything.
Donovan and I just sit there. It’s peaceful.
“I’m sorry you’re dying,” I find myself saying. The words sound stupid and trite, but Donovan nods.
“Me too.” He leans against me, just for a minute. It’s kind of brotherly. I like it.
The fact that he’s gonna die suddenly makes me so angry. Like, furious. It prickles across my skin, itching, until I have to do something to get rid of it. I pick up a rock and hurl it down at the ship. It crashes into the metal with a bang.
Lou snorts and sits up. “Wha–?” He coughs, a horrible rheumy sound. His spittle is flecked pink when he wipes his mouth.
The rock I’ve thrown didn’t even dent the side of the ship. There’s still no movement, no sign of life.
I lift my fingers and frame the image, but it feels off. I can’t distance myself from this like I want to.
Donovan’s watching me.
Lou groans and struggles to his feet. “Oh, Lordy do I gotta piss.” He wanders down the side of the crater and unzips his fly. Donovan and I watch in silence as he starts to urinate on the side of the spaceship.
When he’s done he zips up and pats the ship. He starts to giggle. Walking back toward us, the giggle blossoms into a deep old man laugh that booms across the vast emptiness.
Lou is crazy. I find myself smiling, and I know Donovan is too.
“Well,” Lou says. “I may be lost, but how many can say they’ve taken a leak on the side of an alien spacecraft?” He laughs again. “Shit if that won’t make a good story.”
A piercing sound fills the morning air and we all freeze.
The bottom of the spaceship’s corkscrew begins to rotate, collapsing on itself until it’s formed a fat cylinder about forty feet high and thirty feet wide. There’s a door facing us now, where before there was none.
My mouth falls open.
Donovan goes rigid beside me. My heart is hammering against my ribs, beating, like, insanely fast. I’m gripping Donovan’s hand, not even sure when I reached for it.
We stand up, all three of us together.
The door of the spaceship slides open, an invitation.
We look at each other. Lou’s smile is whiskered and wistful, Donovan’s bright, like agates in the sun. His eyes are burning again, no longer sad, and I can see his pulse beating hard against the smooth skin of his throat.
Sometimes, I think, just sometimes, what you find isn’t what you expect.
We clasp hands and start down the side of the crater.
The end of our story is also the beginning.
A drunk, a runaway, and a dying man walk into a spaceship.
The camera pans wide. Fade out.
Miranda Suri lives in Brooklyn, writes speculative fiction and teaches archaeology at Queens College. Her work has appeared in Psuedopod, Flash Fiction Online, Penumbra, Every Day Fiction, Mothership Zeta, and Electric Spec, among others. She is a graduate of the Viable Paradise Writers Workshop and is represented by Sarah LaPolla of the Bradford Literary Agency. You can learn more about Miranda by visiting: www.mirandasuri.com