By Devin James Leonard
Dear Mercer County Sheriff’s Department,
My name is Winston, and by the time anyone should find this letter that I have left on the dining room table, I shall be long gone. The date is October 31, 1938, and the reason for my writing this is in relation to the two accidental deaths that occurred at my employer’s residence on the previous night. The first body you will discover right away, and that is of my boss, Boss, and in telling you the location of the second, I wish for you to absolve my dearly departed Boss of any wrongdoing, for it was not his fault. I sure hope I can convey this story correctly, for my reasoning is that you might see in your hearts that, though the other death was murder, it was unintentional. Boss always told me I was good with my hands, but my mind was simple. I took that to mean I am dumb, so I will try to tell it as best and brief as I’m able.
Before I came along, Boss lived alone in his farmhouse. It was a large house for one crippled old man, with plenty of animals in need of tending. He had many chickens and turkeys, a dozen sheep, but mostly gardens. Boss made his living off the crops and livestock, fed off them too. But like I said, he was old, and walked with a cane because of a bum leg, and couldn’t keep up with the strenuous labors the farm required. When he took me in, I handled all the chores for room and board, and I even took care of him, too. I cooked his meals, washed his clothes, drew his baths, and maintained his gardens. Everything was handled by me. Before my employment, Boss said he lived a life of solitude and peace and quiet, so most of the time I just kept my head down and went about my errands and whatever he asked of me, only talking when prompted or when we’d relax in the den at night, smoking our pipes and drinking corn whiskey I made from a still in the barn.
We got along for many years, and never did we have any outsiders bothering us. Until yesterday, that is, when the stranger crept up onto our porch and knocked on the door.
Every morning I make coffee and bring it out to the back deck where Boss likes to sit and watch the sun rise over the hills while I gather eggs from the chicken coop at the rear of the property. I must have been taking too long this time, because Boss came wobbling over with his cane jabbing into the dirt and his bum leg kicking up dust clouds. Boss pressing down on his sun hat on his head like it might blow away, he was coming over so fast, and he yelled at me, “Dammit, boy, what’s the holdup?”
I was sitting on the bottom step of the coop, my basket full of eggs gathered, holding one up to my ear and rattling it. “Just making sure it’s eggs, Boss.”
“Winston, the hell else would it be?”
“A baby,” I said. “I don’t wanna crack no egg and see a little chick come out.”
“Boy, how many times I got to tell you not to worry about no damn chicks being in the eggs? Top of that, I told you not to shake ’em.” He pointed his cane at my face. “You’re scrambling them, Winston!”
“You stir ’em up like that, you’re bound to mix the yellow parts with the white parts. And I done told you my heart isn’t civil to me if I eat the yolks. I gotta have the white parts only.”
“Sorry, Boss,” I said, “I forgot.”
Boss sighed at me then, a big ole huff I took to mean he’s frustrated, and sure enough he yelled at me to get going up to the house, hurry it up, and fix him his eggs. “Whites only, please!”
I gathered up my basket and made my way across the backyard, heading for the house, when I halted, overcome with a sense of being watched. The animals was always around and everywhere—they was always looking at me—but this time felt different. Felt like a person was watching me. I snapped my eyes to the left, out toward the long driveway, certain I’d see someone. But, no, I didn’t see nothing but the yard and the lawn and the rolling fields beyond the empty roadway.
By the time I got to separating the white parts from the yellow parts of the eggs and frying them up, Boss had made his way to sitting at the dining room table, waiting. I brought him his breakfast, and before Boss could take off his hat and set it beside him… knock-knock. Someone was at the front door.
Now, as I’ve stated, we don’t get many visitors, none to be precise, so this rather sudden and surprising sound spooked the both of us. Gave me quite the fright considering only a few minutes prior I could have sworn someone was watching me.
Boss looked at me with his wary old eyes, and in his gruff voice he tried to whisper, but still ended up yelling, “Get my rifle!”
I grabbed the lever-action Winchester from above the fireplace while Boss groaned and guffawed himself into a standing position, and together we approached the door. I stashed the rifle against the wall in the corner before opening the door, marched out onto the porch, and found a young fella out on the lawn. He must have knocked and then wandered off the steps in his waiting.
I shouldn’t give a description of my appearance so as not to assist the law in finding me based on my likeness, but I will say I am a rather large man, only twenty, but Boss once told me with my thick red beard and heavyset frame I could pass for thirty. And Boss said I can be an intimidating presence if I drop my voice low, like I’m speaking from down in my stomach. So that’s what I did, and with my scariest voice, said, “State your business, mister.”
The stranger threw his hands up in a surrendering gesture and chuckled as though someone told a joke only his ears heard. “Easy, there, big fella.” He spoke with a country accent, not all that dissimilar to ours. “I don’t mean no harm,” he said. “My automobile broke down a few miles back. Transmission, I think.”
“You don’t sound like you’re from around here.”
Cowering behind me, Boss banged the tip of his cane on the deck boards and said, “Winston!” That was his way of telling me to pipe down, and so I did. Boss said to the stranger, “You don’t sound like you’re from around here, boy.”
“You don’t sound like you’re from around here, neither,” the stranger said. “Where y’all from?”
I said, “We from—”
Boss banged his cane. “Winston!” and to the stranger, “You’re on my property, son. I ask the questions. Where you from?”
“Well, I was born in Missouri,” the stranger said, pronouncing it miz-zir-uh, “but I ain’t exactly from anywhere. I travel a lot, you see.”
“And what brings you up here in these parts of New Jersey?”
“Just passing through. Like I said—auto trouble. And you can go ahead and keep that rifle where you got it. I’m not the violent kind.”
Boss’s hostility towards the stranger, at this point, began to diminish. But mine? Mine only grew, for even though I was standing in front of Boss, I knew him to be right behind me, and the only things his hands were clutching onto were his cane and my shoulder for balance. The Winchester was still leaning inside the house within Boss’s reach, but he wasn’t holding it, nor letting it be known to the stranger that we even had a rifle nearby. So how did the man know of it? This sure perplexed me, but not Boss.
Boss stepped out from his hiding position and stood alongside me, addressing the stranger with politeness. “Winston here knows a mighty bit about engines, even though his own don’t work so good.” He tapped his finger to the side of my head to show what he meant by engine. “I reckon we got a lot of work to do around here, yet, and I don’t have the luxury of spare hands.”
“Can’t let the chores get away from you,” the stranger said with an understanding nod.
“Can’t very well you leave a man stranded, either,” Boss contemplated.
The stranger removed his sun hat and pressed it to his chest. “Well, to be frank, sir, it’s been quite a spell since I’ve partaken in a hot meal and some clean clothes. Been on the road for some time.”
“Uh-huh, I see,” said Boss.
“I’m in no rush,” said the stranger. “And I’m mighty good with my hands, except for fixing autos, that is.”
Boss and the stranger nodded in sync with each other, on the same page about something my mind hadn’t yet caught up on. Then Boss offered him to work. “What say you help ole Winston out with the day’s labor? We’ll give you two square meals, a hot bath, clean clothes and a comfortable room, in exchange for fixing your automobile in the morning.”
The stranger gave Boss a thankful smile and a nod and said, “That’s mighty Christian of you.”
“Where’s your car at, boy? Ain’t sitting in the middle of the road, is it?”
“No, sir, I got her tucked away for the time-being.”
Boss clapped a hand atop my shoulder and told the stranger, “Well, all right. You go on around back. Winston will be with you in a moment and show you today’s chores.”
The stranger returned his hat to his head, tipped it, and strolled off. Boss instructed me to go about my day the same as any other, showing the stranger the ropes throughout.
The man never told us his name, but calling him stranger is rather fitting, considering the more the day carried on, the stranger it got.
The first chore was simple: clean out the coops. I took to the chickens while the stranger cleared out the straw in the turkey shed, and even though the turkey’s housing was three times the size of the chicken shack, the stranger finished before me. He even retrieved the feed from the barn where I’d shown him at the start and spread out the fixings about the ground and carried bales of hay over to me when he was all done with his part. Boy, was he quick on his feet, and strong, too. I noticed that right off the bat. Like I said, I am a man of substantial size, and here was my helper, skinny as a rail, but he could carry a bale in each hand without straining or losing his breath. Another thing I noticed, once he came to the chicken coop, the animals were not fond of him one eye-o-ta. The turkeys scattered all across the property, some of them even skittering out front by the road, which they never did before. And the chickens, shoot, they took off flying in every direction when they seen him coming. That was odd, considering he brought the feed over, and usually when I bring it they gather about my boots and start pecking away. But not him. No, they was some spooked.
Same happened with the sheep. We journeyed down to the fenced-in shelter to open the gate and let them roam the field along the backside of the property. Sheep are a jittery type of creature and tend to avoid people at all costs. They’ll move around you in a long, arcing circle to keep their distance, and that’s just what they did with us. Only some of them didn’t even wait for the gate to open. Couple of them just dove headfirst into the fence on the opposite end like they was rams head-butting a wall. Never seen anything like it, all those fluffy mongrels baaing and smashing into the wire as though they’d rather sheer the wool right off their backs trying to slip through the fencing than come over to where me and the stranger had opened the gate.
By mid-morning, the heat got to me and I couldn’t pump enough water out of the well to keep me hydrated. End of October, the days were cool, but this day was warmer than most for autumn. The stranger drank maybe a spoonful all afternoon while I guzzled it by the bucket. We spent most of our time splitting firewood around the side of the barn, each of us with an ax chopping seasoned logs in our own separate piles. I’m not a jealous man, but when we finished, I looked at my pile beside his and mine looked like an anthill compared to the forest of split wood he chopped. For every log I brought my ax down on, seemed like the stranger made his way through ten.
When it came time to stack it under the awning, the heat dropped me to sitting in the dirt with perspiration running off me like I was standing under a heavy rain. I was a wet mop from head to toe, and breathless. When I wiped my kerchief across my face, you could ring it out and fill a pail with the sweat. The stranger? He let me rest while he stacked. Never broke a damn sweat even though he was wearing a long-sleeved flannel. Didn’t talk at all while we worked. No complaints. Not a sigh or so much as a groan to let me know he was getting overworked.
What kind of man don’t sweat? I wondered. What type of person makes turkeys and chickens flee their coops even when you’re presenting them a handful of feed? How’s a man half my size manage twice the work? Casting aside my initial curiosity as to how the stranger could possibly know of the rifle hidden behind the door this morning, these were my first sets of suspicions, but they surely weren’t the last.
With Halloween only a day away, Boss had made a killing off the pumpkin crop the past two weeks. That also meant most of my gardening duties were just about behind me for the rest of the year, the summer crop of vegetables already harvested and canned and stored in the root cellar for the long winter ahead. All that was left to tend to was the gourds we grew in a fenced-in garden off the side of the house. What remained for picking was your typical squash varieties—butternut, carnival, acorn, some spaghetti squash, and a couple pumpkins still hanging onto their vines.
Before I made my way to the garden, I showed the stranger where to go and told him to pick what looked like it was ready to eat and I’d be right with him, for first I needed to check up on Boss in the house, make sure he hadn’t fallen down the stairs or slipped or broken a hip. Also, I needed a change of clothes since I was a soaking mess and my britches was rubbing against my undercarriage something fierce and giving me a rash. I found Boss upstairs in his room, lying in bed, the top couple of buttons of his shirt undone as he caressed his chest hairs while reading a book, and then I changed my undergarments, went outside and approached the fence of the garden. The stranger was kneeling in the soil, his hands on his hips, looking down at the ground, and upon entering the garden, I asked him how the picking was coming along.
“Your crop’s dead,” he said.
“How’s that?” I looked all around me, at all the vines spread about the plot. The squashes and pumpkins that had been thriving just yesterday were now shriveled and dead, the vicinity of the garden buzzing with the sound of millions of flies clamoring for the rotten fruit. The entire harvest had perished into nasty clumps of decomposition.
Flies hovered in front of my face in an instant. I used my tilly hat to swat them away, but they kept on buzzing and pestering me to the point I was afraid to open my mouth to breathe. They didn’t seem to bother the stranger none, though, no, he just sat with his knees in the dirt, hands on his thighs, staring down at a spoiled pumpkin.
I ran out the garden with my hat fanning away, calling to the stranger, “Come on out of there, ‘fore you swallow a fly,” and he got up all gingerly, taking his time walking out, not even flinching or so much as lifting a hand to slap the bugs I could see diving at his eyes and mouth.
When we reconvened by the house, I spoke of my perplexity, how the fruits were alive and well just yesterday, but to that the stranger just shrugged. “Perhaps some rabbits got in and took to nibbling,” he said.
This was just one more strange occurrence to add to the many I had compiled inside my head today. Accusations clung to the tip of my tongue, but putting them into words to confront the stranger kept them from coming out. How would I say it? You did something to my crop. But where was the proof? And how did he do something to the fruit? Instead, I said nothing, for the scene came to an abrupt end when the second-story window above us slid open and Boss stuck his head out.
“Almost suppertime, boys. Winston! Send our friend upstairs for a bath and then you go on out and slaughter us some chicken!”
I showed the man to the facilities, brought him a towel and a clean change of clothes for our upcoming dining.
Before I proceeded to the chicken coop, I stopped off at the garden, needing to see this plot of decayed fruit one more time, when I spotted something on the ground. I crept through with my shirt pulled up to my nose and knelt to where the object lay. It was a kerchief lying in the dirt beside the rotten pumpkin the stranger had been looking at. I picked it up and nearly dropped it as soon as I touched it. It was slick and covered with a sticky substance. The cloth looked like it had once been white with a black pattern, but now it was the color of muck in spots, the gooey wet stuff on it pink and smelly. I picked it up again and took a whiff, recoiling as the stench of it stung my nostrils. I never smelt nothing so foul in all my life.
Can’t say why I did it, but I folded the kerchief into a small square, so the sticky contents were on the inside, and stuffed it into my pocket. As I look back now, I suppose it was because I had had it up to here with all the unusual nonsense that was occurring all day long, one after the next. And if I were to bring forth any allegations at a later time, this kerchief might be my only proof that our guest was solely responsible for all the strange happenings unfolding on our quiet farm.
I set the plates, glasses, and silverware, got a fire going in the wood stove, cooked dinner, and brought it to the table where Boss sat at the head and the stranger sat beside him, both dressed in button-down shirts, Boss wearing his nighttime spectacles. Upon removing the lid from the cast-iron skillet to present the chicken I had butchered, plucked, and baked, Boss dropped his eyeglasses to the tip of his nose as he peered down at our meal and said, “Winston, what in god’s creation is that?”
“That’s Slack Jaw Sally,” I said, to which he looked even more confused. “The one with the crooked beak, Boss,” I added.
“No, no. I didn’t ask who it was. I’m wondering why you plucked us the smallest bird when we have guests here.”
Slack Jaw Sally indeed had been a tiny creature, not enough meat to fill my belly, let alone three hungry men. I told Boss, “She was the only one I could catch. Something has ’em spooked.”
Boss huffed and sighed. “There are no greens or sides or nothing,” he said, his hands waving at the table to show their absence.
“There were none, Boss.”
“The last of the squash just up and died.” I snapped my eyes in the stranger’s direction. “Strange, isn’t it?”
“You forget we got a pantry?” Boss said. “All them canned peas and green beans? Carrots? Potatoes!” His aggravation erupted. “Damn it, Winston!”
I could have told him, yes, I forgot, on account of all the activity on the farm, the peculiar things that had occupied my mind since the moment this man had wandered up on our doorstep. My brain holds very little, but what filled it to the brim was this stranger. This stranger whose name we did not know, and all the strange things that were going on around me that Boss wouldn’t understand because he was loafing about in the house all day, not seeing what I was seeing.
But all I said was, “Sorry Boss, I guess I’m a bit overworked today, is all.”
Boss chortled at that—heh heh—and playfully elbowed our guest as though to invite him in on the laughter. “Overworked, he says. Boy, you got yourself extra hands today, and today’s the day you tell me you’re tired?”
The stranger didn’t join in on Boss’s amusement though. In fact, he didn’t speak or smile or move his face or anything. He just sat there, stiff and quiet, and squinting down at his plate like he was trying to figure out what a plate was.
Boss caught the dull look and said, “Something wrong, son?”
Only then did the stranger seem to snap out of his trancelike staring. “No, sir, I am also quite tired. Worried about my automobile as well.”
“What you driving, anyhow?”
“Your vehicle. Now, me? I haven’t been behind the wheel in some time on account of my leg, but out in the barn I’ve got myself a 1934 Ford Fordor Deluxe sedan. It’s the same one Bonnie and Clyde were driving when they was shot all the way to hell by Texas Ranger Frank Hamer and his posse down in Louisiana.”
“Oh, yes, I’m familiar,” the stranger said. “In fact, I drive a Fordor Deluxe myself.”
“Well, how ‘bout that,” Boss said, astounded. “You’re in luck, son, ‘cause Winston here knows every inch of the Fordor Deluxe. He should have no problem getting you back on the road tomorrow. Ain’t that right, Winston?”
“Can’t wait,” I said, and jabbed my fork into Slack Jaw Sally.
Boss and I’s post dinner routine consists of lounging in the den in our matching rockers and listening to the radio over an evening drink and pipe. It’s the most, if not the only, relaxing part of my long and laborious days on the farm, and it’s the quality time with Boss I look forward to the most. But tonight I couldn’t think of any reason to go into that room, for no amount of spirit and no amount of warmth beside the fire would bring me comfort. Not with the stranger still with us. Not after all that had unfolded throughout the day. I wish the night had concluded after our, what Boss had called, lackluster meal. Wished the stranger had retreated to the room I had prepared for him and gone to bed. But, no, that didn’t happen. Despite my protests at being tired, Boss insisted on inviting our guest in for a whiskey and a smoke and friendly conversation. “We don’t get much company around here, Winston,” he said. “Let’s not spoil the night by going to bed early because you’re grumpy.”
I fetched the glasses and bottle, and by the time I brought our provisions into the quiet room, Boss and the stranger were situated on either side of the open fireplace, the stranger sitting in my chair, and I was forced to stand near the armoire where the radio was stationed.
“Shall we listen to the radio, Winston?” Boss asked. His attitude had diminished to a relaxed contentment now that he had had his first sip of alcohol.
“That’d be fine,” I said, and opened the cabinet and fixed the dial on the radio, searching for a station to tune to.
A voice played over the radio: “Friction with the earth’s atmosphere usually tears holes in a meteorite. This thing is smooth and, as you can see, of cylindrical shape.”
The stranger sat quietly, holding his glass on the arm of the rocking chair—my chair—and Boss said, “Do you partake much in spirit, son?”
The stranger considered the whiskey as though he’d forgotten about it. “Oh, yes, of course,” he said, but he still didn’t drink.
I packed tobacco into Boss’s pipe, scratched a match off the brick wall of the fireplace and put the pipe to his lips and lit it for him while he sucked away until the smoke filled his mouth.
Piano music played on the radio.
“Mind if I indulge myself in a cigarette?” the stranger asked, removing a soft package from his breast pocket.
“Indulge all you want, friend,” Boss said. “I only ask that you refrain from partaking anywhere else in the house. The smell lingers for days, and we prefer to keep it in the den.”
“Understandable. I do the same in my home.”
This statement perked me right up. Troubled me, was what it done. But before I could speak, Boss interjected.
“I must say, friend, I’m awfully glad we could put that whole rifle business behind us and get better acquainted. And I’d also wish to send you my utmost gratitude for the work you put in today. We’ll be mighty glad to repay you with fixing your Deluxe in the morning, though I must admit it will be a travesty to see you part ways with us so soon.”
The stranger lit a cigarette, took a pull, and exhaled, saying, “Oh, that’s all right. I presume y’all don’t get too many visitors out here. Stranger like me walks up on your doorstep—it’s bound to raise some suspicion.”
“Suspicious indeed,” I said, and let that linger.
“Ladies and gentlemen, this is the most terrifying thing I have ever witnessed… Wait a minute! Someone’s crawling out of the hollow top. Someone or … something. I can see peering out of that black hole two luminous disks…”
“Wish I could stay longer,” the stranger said, “but I’ve got to be moving along first thing tomorrow.”
“Say, friend, could I trouble you for one of those?” I said, pointing at his cigarette. The stranger obliged and when I lit it and took a long and strong draw, I said, “That’s the smoothest tobacco I’ve ever tasted. What’s it called?”
“I grow it myself,” the stranger said.
“Where’s that? Back home?”
To that, the stranger made no reply.
“I thought you said you didn’t have a home.”
The stranger said nothing.
“…are they eyes? It might be a face. It might be…”
Voices shouted over the radio, and Boss frowned. “Winston, what in the lord are we listening to?
“You know, this morning you said you was just passing through, but where exactly did you say you was passing through to?”
“Good heavens, something’s wriggling out of the shadow like a gray snake.”
“I didn’t say,” said the stranger.
“Now it’s another one, and another.”
“Winston,” Boss said, “leave our guest alone, will you?”
“I’m just ask—”
“You’re interrogating the man, is what you’re doing.”
“They look like tentacles to me. There, I can see the thing’s body. It’s large, large as a bear, and it glistens like wet leather.”
I ignored Boss, my focus on the stranger who sat there and made no defense.
“…it’s indescribable. I can hardly force myself to keep looking at it. The eyes are black and gleam like a serpent.”
“The mouth is V-shaped with saliva dripping from its rimless lips that seem to quiver and pulsate. The monster or whatever it is can hardly move. It seems weighed down by… possibly gravity or something.”
“For goodness sake, turn off that nonsense.”
I turned the dial and got mostly static, searching for a new station. Turned and turned until I came upon a piano and left it there.
“That’s better,” Boss said. “Now, if we could just sit here in silence. This is our time to relax before—”
The piano faded and the voice which we had been previously listening to returned. I must have tuned right back into the same broadcast. Boss told me to change it once again but stopped me when something of interest caught his ear.
“…an eyewitness account of what’s happening on the Wilmuth farm, Grovers Mill, New Jersey…”
“Did he just say Grovers Mill?” Boss inquired.
“We now return you to Carl Phillips at Grovers Mill.”
“It did say Grovers Mill! Listen up!”
I turned my ear to the radio to listen.
“More state police have arrived. They’re drawing up a cordon in front of the pit, about thirty of them. No need to push the crowd back now.”
“Something happening in Grovers Mill?” Boss said.
“Where’s that?” the stranger asked.
“Grovers Mill? You’re in Grovers Mill.”
We all listened…
“… studying the object, while the captain and two policemen advance with something in their hands. I can see it now. It’s a white handkerchief tied to a pole… a flag of truce. If those creatures know what that means…”
“Creatures?” I said. “Did he say creatures?”
“A humped shape is rising out of the pit. I can make out a small beam of light against a mirror. What’s that? There’s a jet of flame springing from the mirror, and it leaps right at the advancing men. It strikes them head on! Good Lord, they’re turning into flame!”
The radio erupted with screams of pain and explosions, the broadcaster telling us a field had caught fire, woods and barns and automobile gas tanks, spreading everywhere.
There was a crashing sound, and the radio went silent for a moment.
Another voice came on next:“Ladies and gentlemen, due to circumstances beyond our control, we are unable to continue the broadcast from Grovers Mill.”
“All that’s happening in Grovers Mill?” I said. “Here? Creatures?”
“Winston, just calm down. We don’t know what’s happening.”
“You heard the man,” I said. “He said creatures! Creatures and explosions and fires!”
“I have been requested by the governor of New Jersey to place the counties of Mercer and Middlesex as far west as Princeton, and east to Jamesburg, under martial law. No one will be permitted to enter this area except by special pass issued by state or military authorities—”
“Now I know you heard that,” I insisted.
Boss considered the quiet stranger. “What do you think of all this, son?”
The stranger just shook his head and pursed his lips.
“…meantime, further details of the catastrophe at Grovers Mill are coming in. The strange creatures after unleashing their deadly assault—”
“Deadly assault!” I howled in terror. “Strange creatures!” Seemed to me I was the only one losing my mind over this. Boss and the stranger just sat there, both shaking their heads. Boss looked like he couldn’t believe it, the stranger like he didn’t know what to make of it.
“Well, if y’all are just gonna sit there,” I said, and stomped out of the den.
“Winston!” Boss shouted after me, but I kept on going. I marched right on upstairs and grabbed my revolver from the bureau, a .38 Colt Detective Special, and ran down the stairs and stormed outside into the night.
My eyes took to the skies in search of color. The radio said the creatures were causing fires and explosions, and I figured if any illumination was visible in the distance, I could calculate how far away we were from what the radio referred to as a deadly assault. But I didn’t see nothing out there but blackness, and so I ran around to the back of the property and searched over there. I didn’t see nothing more or nothing less over here either, just more darkness.
An ominous quiet filled my ears. I couldn’t hear a darn cricket or bug or anything. No sounds from the animals in their shacks. And that’s when it all came back to me. The strange activity.
I found myself near the shed where the stranger had stacked an unimaginable amount of wood, piles twice the size of mine.
I wandered over to the coops where the chickens and turkeys had fled in terror when they came into proximity to the stranger. And the field out back—the sheep that had done smashed their heads into the fence trying to escape the closeness of my helper.
The garden. All the pumpkins and squash that had rotted after being near that man who had wandered off the road earlier today and told us lies about where he was from. A man whose name we did not know.
“Strange creatures,” I said to myself. “Strange creatures, strange activity.”
Boss. Boss was inside, all alone with the strange man. The strange man who had caused all the strange activity.
“Winston!” Boss’s voice called to me from out front. When I ran back to him, he was standing on the porch squinting out at the dark in search of me.
“I don’t see or hear nothing,” he said.
“Me neither,” I said.
“Radio propaganda, is all it is,” Boss said. “Come on back to the house, Winston, before you give me a fright fit to kill me.”
“Oh, I don’t know, sir.” This came from the stranger as he stepped out onto the porch behind us. “Radio said it’s Martians from Mars.”
“Martians!” I shrieked.
“That’s right. And there’s more than they thought, and they’re headed this way. We best take refuge inside.”
He turned into the house, and me and Boss followed him to the den. The radio was off.
The stranger stood straight and addressed us as if he was in charge and started barking orders. “First thing we ought to do is lock all the doors and gather up all the food and weapons on our person. Or better yet, do you have a cellar here?”
“We got a root cellar outside.”
“Even better. Winston, you and me will get everything, and then we’ll barricade ourselves until this whole situation blows over. Now, where’s that rifle you had this morning, and anything else you might have to defend ourselves with?”
“I got my thirty-eight right here,” I said, and with the revolver clutched in my hand like a fist, I socked that man in the head as hard as I could. The stranger’s legs dropped like someone had swept them out from under him, and he hit the floor like a sack of cornmeal.
Boss yelped, “Winston! Why—?”
“Tell you in a minute, Boss. First, help me tie him up.”
It was part of something on the radio that had settled it for me. The moment before I coldcocked the stranger, the voice from the broadcast played back to me: “The captain and two policemen advance with something in their hands. A white handkerchief tied to a pole… a flag of truce. If those creatures know what that means…”
It was the slime-covered kerchief I’d found in the garden. No flag of truce, but evidence, all the evidence I needed to convince Boss of what was happening under our noses.
With the stranger unconscious, I lifted him up and strung him to the rocking chair with some twine, Boss following my every move and yelling his objections and calling me crazy for what I was doing to our guest. But when I got the kerchief I’d stashed in my bedroom and brought it back to the den, I showed it to him, and that hushed him up a bit, though it didn’t yet convince him of nothing.
I stationed myself in front of the stranger with my .38 in hand, waiting for him to wake. Boss moved his chair to the opposite side of the room, rocking away, shaking his head, saying, “I don’t know, Winston. I just don’t know. I believe you have lost your goddamn mind, boy.”
I held the kerchief out to him again. “Lookit, Boss. Just look. You heard the radio, did you not? Saliva dripping from its lips—glistening! What’s this look like to you?”
Boss wouldn’t even look at it more than a moment’s glance, just said, “Looks to be oil from the boy’s automobile.”
“Nonsense,” I said. “It’s Martian saliva.”
Boss thrust his hand at the front window. “Winston, there ain’t nothing going on out there.”
“Nothing yet, but it’s coming.”
“Perhaps we ought to turn the radio back on, see what they’re saying.”
“I heard enough,” I said. “This man is no man. It’s settled. And we gonna find out from the horse’s mouth as soon as he wakes.”
Well, it took a spell for the stranger to come to, but his head started to bob as he woke, his eyes fighting to open, and when he looked up at us, he squinted like the sun was in his face. He had a welt on the side of his head that stuck his hair out like there was a potato growing out of it. Only when he tried to raise his hand to his wound did he realize his arms and legs was confined to the chair. He shut his eyes, wincing and groaning.
“That was some hit, Winston,” he said. “What gives with the rope?”
“The jig is up, mister,” I said, pointing the revolver at him.
“I don’t follow.”
“We know what you are.”
“I’m afraid I’m still not quite following you,” the stranger said. “Perhaps if you were to entertain me with your reasoning for this rather vicious assault you have committed upon me.”
With every word I shouted, I jabbed the revolver at him. “You are a Martian,” I said, “a shape-shifting creature, pretending to be a human.”
“That’s rich,” the stranger said, scoffing and smirking. “Absurd is what it is.”
Boss got up from his chair and hobbled over to stand alongside me. “I agree, Winston. Other than the nonsense on the radio, we haven’t any proof.”
“I already showed you the damn proof, Boss,” I said, and raised the kerchief clutched in my fist to his face.
The stranger admitted it indeed belonged to him, and when I asked him to pray tell what might be all over it, he said, “Grease and whatnot from my auto. I used it to wipe my hands.”
“Wipe the spittle off your lips more like it,” I said. “This ain’t no automobile grease.”
“Then it’s transmission fluid or engine oil. I don’t know.”
“Smell it,” he said. “Find out for your damn self.”
“No,” I said. “You want us to smell it because it’s probably poisonous to us humans.”
“Smell it,” the stranger insisted.
“I will not,” I insisted back.
“Smell the goddamn kerchief.”
“I will not—”
Right then Boss tore the kerchief from my fingers and brought it to his nose—“Boss, no!” I pleaded—but it was too late. Boss took a deep nasally inhale of the slime. He made a slight coughing noise of agitation, but nothing of lethal consequence happened.
He handed it back to me, satisfied. “It’s engine oil all right.”
To this I was quite dumbstruck. Here was my best and most solid piece of physical evidence, and Boss had shattered my case. I had to think on my feet, fast, before Boss decided to cut the man loose. I racked my mind over the course of the day, and said, “Then how’d he know about the rifle behind the door this morning? His Martian eyes must have the sight to see through walls.”
“Your window beside the door was open,” the stranger said. “When I knocked, I heard him tell you to grab the rifle.”
Boss nodded at that.
I said, “Well, what about all the other strange activities that have happened since you arrived?”
“Like all the chickens and turkeys and sheep running for the hills to escape your presence. Spooking them to the point I can’t even catch one for dinner.”
Boss shook his head. “Winston, that ain’t proof of nothing, boy. That’s just normal animal behavior, and you know it.”
“All right,” I said, “then explain to me how our crops just up and died and decomposed within two minutes of you putting your paws on ’em, or how a tiny little fella such as yourself can outwork me all the livelong day—split a cord of wood in ninety-degree heat—and not break so much as a drop of sweat.”
“Winston,” the stranger said with a patient sigh, “I was splittin’ under the roof of the barn. I was in the shade the whole time. It’s not my fault you didn’t take cover. And as far as me doing more work than you, well, let’s just chalk it up to me being younger and spryer than you.”
“And the crops?” Boss interjected.
“As I have already explained to Winston, some rabbits must have gotten in the night before and partook to eating your gourds. There were droppings all over the ground out there.”
Boss looked at me with a settled, if not fed-up look. “Anything else, Winston? Cause I ain’t heard nothing as far as substantial proof goes.”
“Um”—I rubbed the .38 against my head—“his name,” I said. “Man’s been working side by side of me all day and never once offered up his name.
“Well, that’s just a case of bad manners on your part for not asking,” Boss said.
“Or it’s cause Martians ain’t got no names.”
“That’s enough of this humdrum science fiction absurdity.”
Boss made a move forward, meaning to untie the stranger, and I pulled him back. First time in my years on the farm I had ever laid a hand on Boss, not including the times I had to carry him up the stairs when he was feeling weak, hefting him into bed or putting him in the tub. I tore him back at the shoulder and I held onto him to ensure he didn’t fall over, and I said, “Boss, if you don’t believe me, that’s fine. But he’s staying right where he is, and we’re gonna listen to the radio and keep our eyes on the skies until one thing or another reveals the truth.”
I went over and snapped the radio back on, the program still broadcasting the familiar voice now speaking of his travels in New York City, where the Martian invasion had spread.
We listened in silence for only a period of seconds before the stranger’s loud inhale filled the room. He shut his eyes, frustrated, as he exhaled. Opened his eyes and looked up at me, and said, “All right.” It appeared he had a hefty weight of guilt that was wearing him down, a secret he could no longer contain.
“Look,” he said, “the radio is—it’s false. It’s not real. It’s a damn play.”
“A dramatization,” he went on. “I heard the intermission when y’all were outside. They said it was Orson Welles doing The War of the Worlds.”
Boss and I stared at him, waiting for more.
“It ain’t real,” the stranger said. “No Martians.”
Boss glanced over at the radio and said, “Well, that sure makes a ton of more sense than what you’re going on about, Winston.”
Oh, no, I wasn’t buying it. I raised my .38, cocked the hammer, and stepped up to the stranger.
Boss clutched my arm. “Winston, don’t!”
I held my aim on the stranger and said, “Then why did he try to get us to take shelter in the root cellar, Boss?”
“That’s true,” Boss said. His eyes lit up as though he was finally seeing the truth of which I had been desperately attempting to convince him of. He addressed our captive with a voice as rough and strong as when he shouts my name in agitation. “You had us believing the Martians was real when you knew it weren’t. Tell us why, goddamnit.”
At last, Boss was on my side. But not for long. The stranger broke down, hyperventilating as he choked on the lies he was spewing and making out to be truths.
“Okay—all right—fine. Look, y’see, I’m a thief. I go around from town to town, getting strangers to take me in, and I steal all their valuables. I was gonna wait till y’all went to bed, but then Winston got all carried away with this Martian stuff. I figured I’d go along with it, scare you into going into the root cellar. I was gonna lock you in and rob ya blind.”
When he finished, Boss and I kept quiet, Boss silent because he was likely believing this nonsense. I stayed quiet to see if he’d keep spouting lies.
Then Boss said, “Did your automobile really break down?”
“No, sir,” the stranger admitted.
“Do you even drive a Fordor Deluxe?”
The stranger shook his head.
“You son of a bitch,” Boss said.
“That’s ‘cause he drives a spaceship,” I said, and shot him in the head.
The ringing in my ears lasted a long while, and all I heard was Boss saying, over and over, “What have you done? What have you done, Winston?”
Red goop spewed from the hole in the stranger’s forehead and ran down his face.
“Look, Boss. He even bleeds like a human.”
Boss went into a fit, jabbing his cane at the fireplace. “Boy’s brains are all over the bricks and he still got more sense in his head than you, Winston! You just committed murder!”
“No, Boss,” I said. “I saved us from the Martians. You watch. There’ll be more coming this way. We’ll see soon enough.”
I’m sure the reader of this confession will know that we saw no Martians, nor did we hear sirens or see crafts in the sky. Army never came. Still, Boss couldn’t convince me I was wrong. Not until the ringing in my ears faded, and I tuned into the radio:
“This is Orson Welles, ladies and gentlemen, out of character to assure you that The War of The Worlds has no further significance than as the holiday offering it was intended to be. The Mercury Theatre’s own radio version of dressing up in a sheet and jumping out of a bush and saying—”
Boss, listening right along with me, said, “See, boy. You see now?”
“—and remember the terrible lesson you learned tonight. That grinning, glowing, globular invader of your living room is an inhabitant of the pumpkin patch, and if your doorbell rings and nobody’s there, that was no Martian…it’s Halloween.”
Boss and I squabbled for a long while about what to do next. Dead man in the house, a lying thief, a trickster. But he was still human. And I had committed murder.
I told Boss I would call on the authorities to come take me away. I’d admit my sin and ensure Boss got off scot-free, but Boss wasn’t having none of it. He held his spectacles in his hand while he massaged his fingers against his tired eyes. The night had taken its toll on him, and he said, “Winston, you’re going to go outside and dig a hole. Bury the man out back.”
“Clean up this mess and erase any evidence of him ever being here. But first you are going to carry me upstairs and draw me a bath. I’m beyond tuckered.”
“I can’t, Boss.” It was the one and only time I ever said no to him.
“They’ll hang you for this, boy,” he said. “If you’re lucky, you might get put in an institution on account of your not being too bright. Either way, we’ll never see each other again. What’s an old man to do all alone on a farm he ain’t fit to work no more?”
I couldn’t say no to him again, so I carried him upstairs, filled his bath, helped him to undress, and set him in the water. He submerged himself up to his chin and told me to get to work. His face was serene and ghostly white, as if his own soul had left his body at the same time as the man downstairs. As if my pulling the trigger the one time had killed two men.
And it did.
By the time I buried the stranger and scrubbed his blood and scraped all the grit off the fireplace bricks and went back upstairs to check on Boss, he was under the water and as white as a fish’s underbelly. All I can surmise is that his heart gave out on him. After all, he was always going on about how his heart had weakened over the years, how he couldn’t eat certain foods. That morning, he had even chastised me about mixing the eggs with the yolks still in them. His heart wasn’t civil to him, he’d said.
Despite being my employer and a cranky old man, Boss treated me as though we were equals. Friends. Even when he raised his voice and banged his cane, he was always civil to me.
And so concludes my confession. You’ll find the stranger four feet under a fresh mound of earth behind the sheep shack where I buried him. I didn’t know what to do with Boss, so I unplugged the stopper to let the bath drain, and then I lay a blanket over his naked, wrinkled body. I hope somebody finds him before the flies have their fill of the rotten fruit in the garden and take to the house. And someone ought to tell this Orson character to quit it with his foolish programs he makes out to be real. A man’s mind, simple or not, can get carried away listening to such impressionable material.
Bio: Devin’s job as a night watchman comprises sitting at a desk monitoring a county building, which allows him eight uninterrupted hours of reading and writing (best job ever). His interests include painting, reading, writing, and exercising. Devin has written five novels and is currently working on a sixth, as well as many short stories.
He can be found on Instagram
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