Stephen Hundley is a former high school science teacher from Savannah, Georgia. He serves as the fiction editor for The Swamp and is a Richard Ford Fellow at the University of Mississippi.
Joanna is an alien; she tells me in the backseat of the Lincoln. She whispers it in my ear and nips the lobe. I ask her what type she is, the chest-busting kind or the kind that probes? She slides a hand around the top of my pants while she thinks. She dips a pinky into my belly button like a butterfly tongue, making noises as she does. Preep—preep—preep. I’m the probing kind, she says. With her fingers, Joanna traces the bulges and hollows of my throat. With her lips, she trails my collarbone with care.
When the time comes, blinking on the dashboard, we crawl to the front of the car and sit waiting on the defroster. Through the silver smears of the glass, I see the dogs of Showman’s Cliff in the Lincoln’s headlights. They’re pacing between the picnic tables set up near the drop, the ones that look out over the forested pineslope and the yellow spots of the town below. Another dog slips into view, and then another. Left-outs. Last year’s Christmas puppies, brought home with red ribbons stuck to their heads and living full-time at Showman’s before the summer, after they’d shit the rug that last damning time or eaten that one special what-ever-it-was. For my aunt it was her mother’s doilies. All that ancient yellow lace, passed down to her, to Helen, and not to her sisters Justine or Sarah. She had fought for that lace after her mother’s passing, and to see it then: shredded and trailing out in strings from the Labrador’s puckered anus. It was too much for Aunt Helen. Jimmy, I think she called that dog.
I can see Jimmy in the headlights of the Lincoln, two years since his becoming a left-out, and Jimmy looks mean. With the hair on his back standing up in a ridge, and one of his floppy lab ears ripped away, snarling at a mutt who is snarling back. The fur is matted with black smears, badges of distinction won rolling in some fetid armadillo, some rotted raccoon, something that would never have been allowed if he had stayed Helen’s dog. At least he has that.
Joanna cranks the window down, just a few inches, and Jimmy comes padding over all genteel. No bad dogs live on Showman’s for long, and Jimmy knows just how to hang his jaw, though there are teeth missing, ripped away. He knows how to smile.
When Joanna has Jimmy’s attention, I crack my window and whistle. The other five strays pad over to the driver’s door and jockey for position. On Joanna’s side of the car, Jimmy is alone and Joanna, my girl, drops half a cheeseburger for him to eat. She grins, with her breath fogging the window, as he takes it in a single bite. Before we discovered this maneuver, when, before, we’d thrown dollar burgers out like confetti for the dogs, we’d seen the fighting. We’d seen a terrier with too much brass have his throat ripped out. We’d seen enough to fill both eyes. It was safer to play favorites or not play at all.
Why won’t you take him, she asks. And I put the car into gear. I would take him, she says. If it were me living alone. You need something out there with you.
I’ve lived in my mother’s house since she left with my younger brother, left for Atlanta and a job. I don’t blame her. She’d managed a diner in town, gotten caught skimming, and after that—in a place this small—there wasn’t any work to be had. But I’d finished school, I’d found a job at the hardware store, and Joanna was here; there wasn’t anything in Atlanta that I wanted, so I stayed. I’m not home enough for a dog, I say, looking at the road. The Showman dogs are running alongside the Lincoln, sprinting ahead and crossing through the heavy fog that’s settling in, dashing through the solid bars of the headlights. I have my foot dancing back and forth from gas to brake to keep from running them down.
Tell me some alien things, I say, and Joanna tells me that the aliens will come to Georgia first. She says they will come, not in saucers, but on their own, shipless and drifting like snow. How will they survive entry? I ask. Joanna says they will slide through the vacuum and the exosphere like fish, that the aliens will make themselves very thin. And when they come, she says, they will come floating through the clouds with their toes all long and reaching for the tops of trees and the roofs of houses. They’ll latch on to whatever they can and start to grow down, their toes like roots and burrowing deep into the soil, and they’ll lift their hands so their fingers knit together and blot out the sun. Joanna reaches across the cab and rests her hand on the back of my neck where my hair grows to my shoulders and curls into waves. She says this hair is wasted on me. She would like to steal it.
Why will they come to Georgia? Joanna says it is our soil they will want. Clay like cream. Porous sand. The granite boulders, hidden in the earth like dinosaur eggs. The alien toes will curl around them in the earth. Like anchors. And they’re like plants, I say. No, she says, they’re like fish. And they talk like dogs. You’ll want to have one with you when they come. To interpret.
There is a plan by the town to remove the Showman’s Cliff dogs. The pack has grown, and people (people like Joanna and me) have been feeding them. Not just burgers, but proper food too. I know a boy who rides a four-wheeler to the picnic tables with a sack of dog feed bungeed to the back rack. When he gets up to the dogs, he makes a long cut in the bag and does donuts until it’s empty. All the dogs run after him, snapping at the tires. After the boy leaves, the dogs graze in the big, loose circles of dirt and dog food. And there are other folks like that. Folks who care for or profit off the dogs. The dentist who administers rabies vaccines to any dog he can catch. A woman who comes to play for them with her guitar. Ned Rigby, who, aside from owning the hardware store, runs a small hot air balloon operation and carries tissue paper kibble bombs in his basket. For a dollar, you can throw them to the dogs.
The plan to remove the dogs comes from a local cabal, the Daughters of the Confederacy, who have a lodge near Showman’s and claim to own the cliff. Though we, the Daughters of the Confederacy, they wrote in their notice, posted all around town, have allowed for some time the use of our cliff-side view and picnic tables for the enjoyment of the public, we demand that the dangerous animals left there be arrested, disposed of, or otherwise removed within the month. And then came the threat: Should the animals remain, we will have them KILLED and the land will be closed to public use. The way the Daughters typed out “KILLED” in all capitals reminded me of an old west wanted poster. WANTED. DEAD OR ALIVE.
People were upset, but the land was, the sheriff confirmed, private. In the weeks following the posting of the notice, some people took a few of the dogs in, the ones with both ears who still came when you called “Hey Boy” or what-have-you. The ten or so left now are the last of their kind. And the Daughters’ month is almost up. KILLED, I think. I can see it floating in the fog above the road, like the burn-shadow left in your eye after seeing a bright light: KILLED.
We are almost out of the pines and on to the main road. The way down from the cliff is slow going. The land is rooty and steep. So you work a lot, Joanna says. Jimmy’ll sit at home. If he chews up something, who cares. And if he shits on the floor, you’ll pick it up. He’ll be alive. You’re going to love him, she says.
Where will you be in all this, I ask. I can see Jimmy in the front of the pack in the rearview. In the taillights, his fur is red. Joanna is looking at me, and her hand is moving in my lap like a knife spreading jam. I’ll be with you.
. . .
When Jimmy and Joanna moved into my mother’s mobile home, things changed for me. For the better. Things that had been broken, Joanna fixed them. The screen door that wouldn’t close and banged in the wind all night, she put in a new latch. The bed that lilted to one side, she threw out the busted boxspring and propped the thing up on cinderblocks and boards. The musk of the place, all the smells of my mother, she removed the blackout curtains and burned it all away with the sun.
Her first week in the trailer, Joanna cut a long “moon window” into the ceiling, screwed a sheet of Plexiglass over the hole, and caulked it all around. When the aliens come, she said. I want to see them. We lay together on the couch, watching the slim moon rise and the sky grow dusty. How sweet it is to have the natural light, Joanna said. How sweet it will be in the morning. And I said, I love it, but I was looking at the tops of the pines through the Plexiglass and imagining them crashing through and already feeling noon bake us.
Jimmy followed Joanna in the narrow alley of the mobile home, always underfoot and scrambling on the linoleum to get out of the way. The first week, he destroyed our pillows and quilt. We patched the fabric with old work shirts, Joanna’s and mine. When Joanna took contract work on Sundays, hanging a door or some such, Jimmy and I would commiserate over coffee and toast or else smoke under the mobile home’s little awning and watch the road for her return. Weekdays, the three of us ate our eggs in a circle by the radio, and when Joanna and I got home from work at the hardware store, Jimmy would walk out to us, whole body wagging, from beneath the trailer, where he liked to spend the days in the shade. And it seemed clear that we were, all three of us, deep in love. But at night, things were different.
Jimmy would pace. Sometimes he would let out a grumbling whine that Joanna called a “mutter.” In bed, we would listen to the clicking of his claws on the linoleum and the pained mutters and the occasional yip. Once, we found him standing on the counter with his head up to the moon window and his shoulders knotted, howling—not at the moon but, seemingly, not at nothing. Like he was reaching out to old friends. Like he knew what was coming for them. I came stomping out of the bedroom to talk him down. He stilled for a while, laid down where he liked to lay. Feigned sleep. After a few hours he started it up again. Is it the aliens? I asked Joanna. She said no.
After a few episodes of this, I took to walking Jimmy at night after Joanna was asleep. Sleep walking, she called it. As in: Did you sleep walk last night? And I’d say: Ayuh, and there’s vanilla in the fridge. That’s a ritual of mine and Jimmy’s. We walk to the Gas ’n Go and get a half-pint of ice cream. I spoon out Jimmy’s in the parking lot where he eats the whole glob of it at once, like a marshmallow. I eat a little myself, and pocket what’s left for Joanna. She feels included that way. Before the ice cream, when Jimmy and I would walk the bobcat trails by flashlight and scare the joggers come hoofing out from town, she felt like she was missing out on the adventure. I tell her it’s not all that, the walking and the midnight ice cream, though, secretly, they are my favorite times.
Will the aliens allow ice cream? I ask. When we live like mole-people under their dark regime. The aliens, Joanna says, will allow ice cream, and life may continue on in the dark. The aliens will use the sunlight to fuel their brains and the brains will flash signals to one another through the woven fingers and hands that cover the sky. And it will look like a firework show all day, every day. But who will grow the vanilla beans, I ask, and Joanna kisses me sweetly while we stand over the kitchen sink. It is late in the night, and I have just come home from walking Jimmy. I will make you an electric garden, she says. And we will grow our own.
. . .
When the end of the Daughters’ month finally came, word went around that they had engaged a few of their sons and husbands to shoot the remaining strays. Any that’s left, we’re to shoot, Ed Spars reported to me at the cash register of the hardware store. On the counter was a box of .22 longs. I don’t like it, he said. I don’t like it at all. But it’s her pa’s pa’s land, and she don’t want no rabid dogs or biters out there with the little ones running around. No sir. It was the same run of talk I’d heard him ambush three other men with in the store, Ed had hit them with it—these weak lines—whenever he found them in the aisles, he’d come walking up, calling them by name and jangling the box of rounds. I doubt he even needed the bullets, as they are sold by the thousand. I think he came to apologize, or for someone to tell him no.
If you don’t like it, why do it? I ask. Just run them off. Whip ’em if you have to. No, no, no, Ed Spars says. He is nearly sixty and resembles a confederate general garden gnome. My Margaret, she can’t have them around. They’ll come back and bite one of them little ones.
You haven’t had any “little ones” out on that cliff in forty years, Ed Spars, a man says from behind him in line. I don’t know his name. And those dogs ain’t bit nobody. I had my own gran-boys up there last month. No, no, Ed Spars says. No sir.
There’s a button I can press on the cash register that makes a loud noise. Some kind of preliminary unlock button. I hit it sometimes just to feel the click. I hit it then, and Ed Spars looks back from the man behind him. It’s $9.99 if you want the bullets, Mr. Spars, I say. But you might call animal control in Macon as well. See if they won’t come out. No, no, Ed says. They won’t come out. He pays and leaves, and the man behind him in line walks out behind him with the paint he was buying still sitting on the floor. Through the store’s big windows I can see them having words in the parking lot, the paint man throwing his hands in Ed’s face and Ed looking old but standing very straight, saying no, no, no, whatever-whatever.
I think that maybe I should call the police, but I stand still, watching. The paint man knocks the box of bullets from Ed’s hands and they scatter like golden roaches on the concrete. The paint man waits for Ed to bend down to collect the rounds, but he doesn’t, he just stands fiddling with his beard and looking at the .22s where they glitter on the ground until the paint man walks off. I go out to help Ed pick up his bullets. Not because I think it’s right for him to shoot the dogs, but because he is an old and dignified man who would not fight in the hardware store parking lot, and because it wouldn’t do for Ned Rigby, my boss, to see the mess.
When I call Macon Animal Control, the line is busy. I call back again, and it’s the same.
. . .
I don’t know what happens when we die, but Joanna says most of us dissolve into the soil. That sounds about right to me. We are eating burgers with Jimmy in the Lincoln at Showman’s, discussing whether or not all dirt is dirt that once held a dead person. I’m fairly certain it has to be. I’m not sure, Joanna says. Is sand dirt? she asks. In my mind I see a pie chart projected onto the painted brick wall of a classroom. In it are the four components of soil: minerals, air, water, and dead people. I believe so, I say to Joanna. Then we’ve been making dead-guy castles all this time, she says. And muddy dead-guy pies, I say.
Ned Rigby’s big flatbed truck is parked out by the cliff. On the back is a hot air balloon basket. The blowers are running and, before our eyes, an enormous red balloon inflates over the cliff, while Ned spits sunflower seeds out of the side of his mouth and fuels up the burner.
Jimmy huffs and lies down in the backseat. Then he gets up and hangs his head out of the window. Then he lies down again. He would like to get out of the car. I open the door for him, and he starts to patrol, sniffing the picnic table, the legs of tree roots where they push out of the earth, the place where a bird has died. He pads over to Ned, who gives the dog’s one good ear a rub. Five minutes now, Ned calls to us. In the car, Joanna has gone very still. I reach for her and find her hands are slick and cold. Hey now, I say. It’s stupid, she says. To be afraid. I don’t think so, I say. This will be our first time in the air.
When the aliens come, I say, there won’t be much room for the balloon, so I figure we had better make the most of things now. We have had this planned for weeks, and there had been no fear between us. Last night we’d lain in bed talking about the ways we would be okay dying: Drowning, no. Laughing fit, no. Cougar attack, sure. Burning up entering Earth’s atmosphere, we decided, had enough gravitas if we were allowed a final monologue transmission to the people of Earth with some light Aerosmith playing in the background, but regular burning, no. Hot air balloon explosion was deemed dramatic enough.
The balloon fills, and Ned starts the flame. I tie Jimmy up to a pine so he won’t tear the Lincoln’s seats in a rage, and he has himself a nice long piss. Best not leave him out here, Ned says and nods up the road where the Daughters’ lodge and Ed Spars’s home is. Can he come in the basket, I ask, but Ned says no. A dog that size, he says. That’s too much. I lead Jimmy back to the Lincoln and ask him, very nicely, not to eat the car.
Joanna is in the basket, her hands white on its lip and her back tight under my hand as the balloon, first by inches, then by feet, lifts up, up, and over the cliff. There she is, Ned says. There she goes. Jimmy barks in the car, already looking alien and small from the height of just a dozen meters out into space. Ned pours us some champagne, and retreats, politely, to a stool in another corner of the basket. Radio? he asks. We say no. Do you think Jimmy’ll be all right? Joanna asks. Nobody will fool with him in the car, I say.
The town of Issock glares through the pine forest like the bald spots on a man’s head as we float serenely above, with Joanna still gripping the basket and my arms wrapped around her. We marvel at the main road and the gravel tops of shops glowing grey, the few cars milling around and checkering the streets in their reds and blacks. I point, there, where the yellow-green rectangle of the high school’s field stretches, the red baseball diamond pushed into a corner of trees. I see the dense green spread where I know our house is, buried in the woods.
My mother came to visit a month or so back. Joanna and I slept on the mobile home’s narrow couch and gave her the master. We had breakfast at a nice place. For dinner, I cooked pork chops and macaroni. Joanna poured wine. Something set us off, Joanna and me. We got to talking about the aliens and what sorts of houses we would have to build when they finally came. My mother drank her wine quickly until she was drunk enough to ask if we were both cracked and had we made up any savings and were we using condoms when we screwed? This dog is fine, but babies are different, my mother said. Babies are reality. Joanna had Jimmy up on her lap, all seventy-odd pounds of him. Do you know what you’re doing? my mother asked. She reached to scratch Jimmy’s back and shaggy yellow hair filled the air. Yes, Joanna said. We do.
We gave my mother the master. On the couch that night Joanna whispered that when the aliens come, Jimmy will speak, and he will tell us what to name our children. Why does he get to decide? I ask her. What would you name them? she asks. Mel, I say. Or Francis. My girl, she laughs like a jackal, while Jimmy snores on the floor.
When we saw my mother off in the morning, she told me why she’d made the trip. The place is sold, she said. You’ve got two weeks. With her head out of the window and the car in reverse, she told me. Come to Atlanta, she said. There’s work.
It’s not so much leaving the trailer that bothers me. With Joanna and I working, there are places we can go. With Joanna’s folks or in some little place. It was the how and why that stung. It was my mother’s weighing and measuring that hurt when I sat across from Joanna to pass the news.
. . .
After lunch in the balloon, Joanna and I go back to looking out over the land. The heat of the summer is softened by a breeze. A robin lands on the edge of the basket opposite from us and stares. This year has been the happiest I’ve ever known, I say into Joanna’s hair. Ned has let the wind take us a little ways, and the balloon is hanging over the kaolin mine. The clear blue water of the drainage pool is a siren, and, deep in its belly, a dozer rusts. Will you marry me? I ask.
When the aliens come, Joanna says, will we still be married? What does that mean? I ask. Well, she says, things will be different then. You won’t have a job at the hardware store. There won’t be any need for jobs like that. I ask her what sort of work we’ll be doing when the aliens come and she says we will likely be living on the road, scavenging for fuel.
When a kaolin mine runs dry, and the new digs come up empty, and the company loads up its trucks and drives away, they will sometimes stock the drainage pond with fish, brim or freshwater cats. I ask Ned if the old mine pond is stocked. It is, he says. Then I’ll be a fisherman, I say to Joanna. When the aliens come, I’ll fish for us. What will you do? I’ll fish too, she says. Will you marry me? I ask again. Do you think I’m cracked, she says. I can hear Ned muttering something. The wind is picking up, and he lets a little air out of the balloon to slip the gust.
No, I don’t think you’re cracked, I say. There are things I may want, she says. Later-on things. I may want to leave town, go somewhere else and live. Would you do that? I would, I say.
My skin is tight from the sun. I can feel the freckles rising on my cheeks, baking and darkening, growing large and sprouting hair, rising like dough. Will you marry me, I ask. Yes, Joanna says. And Ned Rigby laughs. My vision is foggy, and my mind is afloat in rosewater perfume. The blood is sloshing in my feet.
The balloon dips down into a new channel of air and we sink to a wide flat of clay. Ned has left a truck nearby to relay us back to Showman’s Cliff. I can see the edge of it from the landing zone, granite face pale in the full July sun, so close to the Earth. When the three of us climb the bumps of the cliff road, crammed on the bench seat of Ned’s truck, I see a long white Ford parked next to the Lincoln. I see Ed Spars and his brown stock rifle. I see the door to the Lincoln opened wide.
Shit, shit, Joanna says. It’s all right, I say. It’s okay. We pile out, and Ed Spars is already laying the gun on the trunk of the Lincoln and raising his hands, and Joanna already screaming for Jimmy, and Ned already shouting at Ed Spars, just what did you do? Just what did you do? And me, looking in through the Lincoln’s back window at the seats, the perfect untorn seats, and Jimmy curled up, unmoving on them, as if asleep, and the day so hot, so hot I can’t touch the blue steel body of the car, and in a small part of my mind, a tiny cut-off fragment left out from the rest of me and drifting into the atmosphere, I pray for the aliens to come. I pray they make Joanna their queen. I pray they reach their long toes down and grow them through my chest. I pray they run me through.