WALKING TO CAPE CANAVERAL
Surf washed in, and the darkening sky glittered with stars. On the beach, Alan McVickers lay, grizzled head on his sneakers, bare toes in the warm sand. From the corner of his eye, he glimpsed brown shoes. A large body in tan slacks and blue work shirt loomed over him; Alan was five-ten, and this guy would stand head and shoulders taller. Weary eyes twinkled from the face above, a face Alan recognized with a start. Those enormous ears. They stuck out from a head round as a bowling ball, a stubble of black hair on top. The mouth was wide, and the nose long, with large nostrils. The last three weeks, wherever Alan was, so was this guy.
In Dade County Municipal Court, where Alan watched the cases, he’d begun to notice the stranger, always three or four seats away. Then at the library, he spied the stranger over his shoulder. Next day, behind the Winn-Dixie, as Alan pawed the rubbish for doughnuts, the stranger ambled past. Often as Alan went to sleep, on a bench or in the grass, the stranger lay nearby. They had never spoken.
Soothed now by the ocean air, Alan smiled. “You been following me?”
Fluidly the stranger sat down, cross-legged. “Actually, yes. I’ve been filming you for my show.”
His show. Right. Alan rose to sit, slipping a hand under his hair, where it ended at the base of his neck, and rubbed. “Your show, huh? Gee, network or syndicated?”
“Syndicated.” The stranger’s voice was deep and smooth. “I’d like to interview you.”
“Syndicated,” Alan said, “like Povich or Springer?”
The stranger’s large dark eyes shone. “I hope my approach is less sensational. And my audience is more diverse.”
His audience. Is more diverse. “Great,” said Alan. “Surprised I never saw you.”
“Hardly a surprise.” The stranger laughed. “But really, I want you on my show.” He ran a hand across his shirt and trousers. “I should tell you. These function like a cam-corder, and are transmitting a recording of our conversation to my studio.”
Ooh, his clothes are really a camera. “That’s okay.” Alan stroked his scraggly beard. “But I’ll let you know about the interview. It’s been a long day.” He lay back down, and glanced from the corner of his eye. The stranger was lying down ten feet away.
When Alan woke, the stars were fading, and the stranger still slept. Silent as a burglar, Alan lifted his socks and sneakers and tip-toed off. A hundred yards north, where the beach curved, he looked back. The stranger lay silhouetted in twilight, and Alan lumbered around the curve.
Yesterday morning he’d followed the shoreline from Miami for Cape Canaveral, where in six days a space shuttle was to lift off. He was glad to walk the hundred miles to see that. As the sun turned the ocean red, he plodded on, hungry and dazed, but enjoying sun, sea, and sand. In another hour sunbathers appeared: here a mother and toddler, there a portly couple with pale skin, here a college-age couple, gazing at the ocean.
Along a deserted beach, a figure waved from under a palm two hundred yards away. Alan got closer, and his stomach clenched. Under the palm sat the stranger, still looking frazzled, yet tranquil.
Pausing every few steps, Alan stumbled over. “How…”
“Did I catch up?” The stranger smiled. “I teleported up the beach.”
“Like Star Trek or something?”
“The process is similar.” The stranger’s eyes twinkled. “I didn’t dissolve into scintillating fragments, though.”
Alan sat down beside him. “You’re my first hallucination.”
The stranger smiled. “No hallucination. Though what I am, you may doubt.” He stared at Alan. “An extraterrestrial. From the world Shuvara. My name is Chawaray.”
“You ever see a psychiatrist?” Alan cocked his head.
“You must’ve left before daylight, and yet here I was. Can you explain that?”
“Maybe you drove down here.”
“That would explain it.” The stranger nodded. “ But, I assure you, I teleported.”
As a breeze came off the ocean, Chawaray gazed at him. “I’m from a confederation of innumerable worlds.”
Alan’s mouth twisted.
Chawaray nodded. “Countless life-forms, a trillion beings linked by communication networks, interstellar flight, and law.”
Alan had met weirdoes, but this guy…“What brings you to Earth?” He tried to sound sincere.
“I host a show on primitive life-forms. I’m a scientist and journalist.”
“The show airs on seventy-four planets,” Chawaray continued, “spread over twenty galaxies.”
Voice rising, Alan demanded, “What’s all this got to do with me?”
Chawaray wagged a finger. “You caught my interest. I’ve already done a segment on you, to which viewer response was positive. I’d like to interview you on my ship.”
“Lemme guess. We’d teleport up.”
“Of course. And my producers would pay. Ten thousand of your dollars.”
Alan dug the toe of his shoe into the sand.
Chawaray held up a finger. “We would insist on erasing your memories of our encounter.”
Maybe Alan should call his bluff. If the guy was nuts, they weren’t going anywhere. “You’d have to erase my memories?”
“Surely you can see why.”
Alan stared down. “Yeah, well.” He looked up. “My memory’s already got too many blanks. I don’t want any more.”
Chawaray pressed his lips. “Given your history, I can see that.” He raised one hand sideways and dropped it. “And who would believe your story if you shared it?”
Alan leaned forward.
“So.” Chawaray paused. “I’ll bend the rules. No memories erased. You’ll agree to the interview?”
Chawaray tapped Alan’s shoulder reassuringly, closed his eyes, and they were no longer on the beach. In a room with a monitor screen, they sat on a white couch, comfortable-looking chairs on both sides. The floor gleamed like marble and had mandala-like parquetry, but felt neither slick nor hard. The walls were a deep gold, and through an oval window fifteen yards to Alan’s left, stars without number shone.
Alan’s voice came out a croak. “So you aren’t crazy I guess.”
Chawaray patted his shoulder again, crossed the chamber, pressed the wall, and from a drawer that slid out, took something. He returned, slipping a bracelet onto his arm. Gleaming like white gold, the segmented bracelet adjusted snugly around his bicep.
He sat down beside Alan. “We’ll do the interview here.” His weariness seemed to be lifting. “But we can eat, and if you like you can rest.”
“Great.” Alan pointed. “But I can’t help noticing. Since you put on that bracelet, you look more relaxed, not so shot.”
Chawaray nodded. “This is a talisman, I believe its name would translate. When a nervous system has received stress, this heals the injury. Your world’s negativity is overwhelming. The talisman is returning me to normal.”
“Why don’t you wear it on Earth? Why let things build up?”
“We take no more technology down than essential.” Chawaray leaned back. “And a talisman is calibrated to the individual nervous system. If a human somehow came into its possession, irreparable damage to his or her nervous system could result.”
Limbs quivering, Alan asked. “Could you make one for one of us?”
Chawaray frowned. “It would be unusual. But it could be done.”
“Could you get me a talisman.?” His heart pounded. Since Vietnam, he’d been shattered, he knew. Could this heal him?
“I return home in three months.” Chawaray slowly shook his head. “Under any circumstances it would be extraordinary. That soon–impossible.” Alan slumped, and Chawaray added, “I just can see no way. I’m sorry.”
Two aliens entered. Like Chawaray, they were tall and stocky and had gigantic ears, but their skin was striped purple and gold. As Alan gawked, Chawaray laughed. He nodded toward them. “My assistants. My coloration too, but it might make me a little conspicuous.”
Alan kept looking back and forth between Chawaray and his assistants.
A hint of laughter still in his voice, Chawaray said, “My coloration should be back to normal in about a week.”
One of Chawaray’s assistants showed Alan to a dining room with an oblong table of mauve wood with a large swirling grain, and then to a spacious bedroom. A screen filled its right wall; a padded chair with no legs floated near the opposite wall. In the far left hand corner lay a thin lavender rectangle, eight feet by four, and in the far right hand corner was a green square, three foot across.
He turned to his guide. “Where’s the shower?”
“Shower?” Then understanding showed on the assistant’s striped face. “Ah, you want to bathe.”
He led Alan to the corner. “Stand on the square.”
Wondering how he was supposed shower dressed, Alan stood on it. Nothing happened, except after a few seconds, he felt clean all over. He glanced down: his ragged clothes were spotless. He grinned. “Wow.”
The assistant lead him back to the dining room. From the kitchen, the assistant brought Alan a plate that held a small loaf of what looked like fire engine red tofu. Wrinkling his nose, Alan looked at him. “Don’t worry. Perfectly edible for your species.”
Alan grimaced, picked up a serrated spoon and took a bite. The stuff tasted like lemonade.
When he had eaten, an assistant lead Alan back to the studio. After introducing him to the audience, Chawaray began, “When we first discussed this interview, you had spent the prior day walking along the beach away from Miami. I’m curious: why?”
“I was walking to Cape Canaveral.” Alan smiled. “A space shuttle’s lifting off next week.”
“You were going to watch?”
Alan leaned forward. “I catch a lift-off any time I can. The greatest fireworks.” He squinted. “But it’s not just that: Those astronauts leave the whole world behind.” He stared at Chawaray. “I mean up there in space. Not even gravity can touch them.”
“I think I understand.” Chawaray paused. “May I ask you: what was it like where you grew up?”
Alan told of Lone Oak, his hometown in Western Kentucky, of school, little league baseball, shooting marbles, riding bikes out to swim in the creek, lying in bed nights, haunted by some train’s wail.
Shifting in his chair, Chawaray asked, “And at nineteen, still a child really, you entered the military?”
“I got drafted.”
“What was the nature of your training?.”
Alan furrowed his brow.
“What did they teach you?” Chawaray asked.
Alan glanced at the parquetry. His voice was matter of fact. “To do what I was told, mainly. And to kill.”
He spoke then of corpses stacked high, hiding behind them fighting for his life, of atrocities, brothels, opium dens, Vietnamese pot, rock and roll blasting amid battles, a mortar shell whistling through the night as he padded down a jungle path, spinning to look several paces back into his friend Jocko’s eyes an instant before the shell ripped Jocko apart.
And yet he felt like laughing; he’d chosen way back to view it all as a joke. He left unsaid that it was all crazy, beyond his control. He made Chawaray laugh at tales of red-tape, incompetence, and absurd orders. He even made the government’s lies somehow laughable.
Chawaray showed a clip from an earlier broadcast, which followed Alan in Miami: the cheap hotels where he roomed till his disability check ran out, the beaches and parks where he slept then, his foraging behind supermarkets, whiling away the hours as a courtroom spectator or by the ocean.
Chawaray opened his mouth as if to speak, but more incredulous than he’d felt yet, Alan interrupted. “People all over the universe watched that?”
Chawaray spread his hands. “I don’t know if you’d call them people, exactly.”
Alan blew a breath out. “Joke’s on me, I guess.”
“Our viewers found the circumstances of your life incredible.” Chawarays’s face was serious. “How did you go from warrior to derelict?”
Alan’s breath hissed over his teeth. “When I got back to Lone Oak, nothing seemed real.” He looked at Chawaray. “I’d meet some old friend on the street. We’d be talking. The whole time, I’d be hearing B-52’s. Or seeing my friend’s face explode. It got weirder and weirder.”
He told it all, grinning from time to time: How he’d spent hours on his bed staring at the ceiling. How he smoked grass, drank, and talked nonsense. He stayed out late, and if he wanted, slept in the front yard, or in the neighbors’ yard, or in the outfield in the American Legion Ballpark. He made late-night calls to strangers all over the country. A mountain of dirty clothes piled up in his room, and his mother complained, until in the wee hours one morning, he hauled the clothes into the street, doused them with gasoline, and made a bonfire. He liked to skinny dip in the town swimming pool after midnight alone. The police arrested him for it so often that the Judge threatened him with prison.
He babbled to women in bars, his attentions welcome as a drug bust. Just as unwanted were the hundred red roses or three pound boxes of chocolates he sent them accompanied by notes of pure gibberish. His parents kept institutionalizing him, and he started to get a veteran’s disability pension, from which his parents gave him an allowance.
Alan grinned at a somber Chawaray. “Things went on like that, until December of 1980 I beat my parents to the check.” He leaned back in his chair. “I cashed it and caught a bus to Miami.”
“Did that help?”
Alan shrugged. “I guess. I’ve spent a few nights in jail, but I never been back to the loony bin.”
After the interview, Alan sat for some time by himself in the studio staring out an oval portal at stars stretching to infinity.
In his room, he slept on the lavender rectangle, soft as down. When he woke, his jeans and t-shirt lay folded on the floating chair, mended, it seemed. He rubbed his forehead. How could they have repaired the frayed edges of his t-shirt and all the tiny holes? And his tattered jeans were like new. He went to the dining room, where Chawaray sat before a plate of what looked like phosphorescent pink spinach. An assistant strolled in from the kitchen, and brought Alan a plate of it, which tasted like mustard and garlic.
“I hope you don’t mind our supplying you with new clothes,” Chawaray said. “Your old ones were beyond repair. We replaced them with facsimiles.” His eyes gleamed. “Much more appropriate for a media sensation.” He waved aside Alan’s quizzical look. “Over seventy percent of viewers, humanoid and non-humanoid, found you appealing. They’d like to see more. I have only three months, but I think we could do the rough footage for a documentary.”
Alan’s mind staggered: A hit, documentary, three months, the talisman. “How about a talisman?” He gave an anxious smile. “That part of the deal?”
Regret showed in Chawaray’s eyes. “I see no way.”
Chawaray leaned forward. “My producers are very interested in the documentary. They would pay well.”
Alan would hold out for a talisman. He’d never hang on to the money anyway. But a talisman–maybe wholeness. He shrugged.
“I think that they would pay much more than ten thousand dollars for this,” Chawaray said.
Alan let both hands rest on his legs. “The deal’s got to include a talisman.”
Chawaray shook his head. “Maybe it could be arranged, given time. But I can’t promise that. I’m sure it couldn’t be done before I leave.”
Chawaray gave him a wallet containing ten thousand dollars. He also gave him a suitcase filled with jeans, slacks, shorts, and shirts. “I thought these might be in order given your new status.” He smiled.
Then, suitcase in hand, Alan found himself on the beach. It was just after dawn, surf splashed in, and he stood near the palm where he and Chawaray had talked. He strolled several blocks to a Holiday Inn and checked in. He was clean and well-dressed, and the young woman behind the counter smiled as she handed him his key. It was almost stranger than teleporting to an alien’s spaceship.
That evening, he had supper in the motel restaurant, and that night sat at the bar among a crowd in their thirties. A deejay blasted hip-hop and power pop, and the crowd danced. He felt like a spy.
In the morning he showered, and leaving the bathroom, a towel over his shoulders, froze. In a plastic chair by the dresser, sat a crimson girl with protruding eyes, her irises as crimson as her skin, her eyeballs golden. Up she sprang and strode over, her smile revealing pointed golden teeth. She stood maybe four eleven.
“The name is Norp,” she beamed, taking his hand in both hers and shaking it. “I caught you on Chawaray’s show. You remember Chawaray? Okay.” She spoke like a commercial’s disclaimer. “Here’s an offer you can’t refuse. I’ll pay you two hundred thousand dollars to help me make a documentary about you.”
Alan ran his fingers through his hair. “Mind if I get dressed?” Water trickled down his forehead.
“Oh sure, sure,” Norp exclaimed. “Don’t let me stop you.” She waved the back of a crimson hand at him.
He gathered up his clothes and shambled into the bathroom. Just when you think it can‘t get any weirder. When he emerged, Norp lounged in the chair by the dresser again, eyeing him.
“It’ll only take a week,” she enthused. “I’ll interview you, then connect you to a reactivator, which stimulates recall of experiences while recording them. Then I intersperse interview with recorded memories.” Norp smiled ingratiatingly. “I have to wipe your memory of our encounter. Chawaray can do what he wants. But I play by the book. Back on Earth you’ll be contacted and get a debit card and the number of an account in your name. We’ll deposit ten thousand a month in it, for twenty months. But you won’t remember anything”
His heart raced. “Could you get me a talisman as part of the deal?”
Forget it,” Norp scoffed. “Just take the money. If you’re worried about getting paid, I’ll show you the account in your name before we begin.”
“You’re not the same as Chawaray, are you?” Alan looked into Norp’s crimson eyes.
“Chawaray is Shuvaran. I’m Krasp, a much more distinguished life-form.”
“You’re an adult?”
Norp bristled. “Of course. Krasp are petite and graceful, not lumbering hulks.” She gave her head a shake, and her raven hair swished just above her shoulders. “Two hundred thousand dollars. A deal?”
“I need to think about it.”
She lifted one palm, turned her head, and spoke as if at someone. “He sleeps on park benches. He eats garbage. And he wants to think about it.” She turned back. “You want to think about it?”
“I’ll give you till three this afternoon. Then you let me know.”
“Okay, okay,” she said, “think about it. But don’t be a fool. Take the money.” Poof, she was gone.
Over ham and eggs he thought. On a walk to the ocean, past cafes and shops and along the beach, he thought. Two hundred thousand…Norp…No talisman…Memory wiped…Still, a chance…He felt his thoughts slipping into incoherence and stopped thinking.
He ambled back. The clock over the front desk read a few minutes before one. He went to his room and lay down. He guessed not. Norp gave him bad vibes. He got his suitcase and strolled down to the lobby, paid his bill. Outside, in the midday heat, he lugged his suitcase. Just as he reached the parking lot, Norp scrambled from under the shrubbery beside the building.
He kept walking. She trotted up and matched him stride for stride. “Yes,” she said, “I was afraid you might skip out.” She clasped his arm and stopped, glancing around the empty parking lot. She flung down his arm. “Now listen to me, you substandard Neanderthal. We are going to make this documentary. Whether you like it or not.”
The muscles around her eyes tensed. She grabbed his arm, and then they sat in a large circular room, in black leather chairs with chrome arms. Black carpet covered the floor, and the metal walls were gleaming white with oval windows every six feet. Chrome framed the windows, beyond which deep space loomed. Norp sprang up, stalked to a small desk, and jerked some papers from a drawer. She stomped over and shook them in his face.
“Look at these, moron,” she sneered, thrusting them into his hands. “They’re a contract in which you agree to make the documentary. I agree to pay you two hundred thousand. You want to cooperate, fine. Otherwise, I just connect you to the reactivator and get what I want. I’d like to interview you. But if you won’t help, I can use Chawaray’s interview.”
“What makes you think I’ll sign?” he asked.
“You’ll sign,” she said. “Maybe I can’t make you do an interview as good as Chawaray’s. But making you sign your name, that should be easy, a pleasure even.” From the pocket of her t-shirt, she withdrew a black object about the size and shape of a ballpoint pen. Smiling, she pressed a button on it.
He screamed, pain searing through him.
Norp smiled with her lips closed. “See? That was quarter power. You’ll sign.” She gave him another jolt. His body throbbed like a smashed thumb. He howled once more.
What looked like a male with Norp’s crimson skin and protruding eyes came into the room. Norp indicated the newcomer with one hand. “My assistant, Jard.” She pointed a thumb at Alan. “You know, I’m about reconciled to making this without his cooperation. We just hook him up to the reactivator and get his memories. Interwoven with Chawaray’s interview, that should make an incredible package.”
Jard raised his eyebrows. Norp shrugged. “Oh, we’ll just see that he signs the contract.” She fondled the cylinder in her pocket. “Afterward we wipe his memory. We return him to Earth and pay him. Everything as the contract stipulates. We’re covered.” She hugged herself, smiling raptly.
Black cylinder aimed at him, Norp marched Alan across the room to another black leather chair. She shoved him into it, and Jard fastened clasps that held Alan’s wrists to the chair’s arms and his feet to the floor.
“Now,” Norp cooed, adjusting the controls of a small black box on a stand beside the chair, “let’s garner some raw material.” She bared her pointed teeth in a grin and peered into his face. “Ready for a trip down memory lane?”
Across the room a yellow light on the wall began blinking, and Jard called out in a strange language.
In what was probably the same language, Norp snarled back and returned to the controls.
Suddenly it was night, and he treaded a jungle trail. Gunfire erupted from both sides. His platoon attacked the right side. Alan stormed into the brush. He stumbled onto a Viet Cong, who looked about twelve. Alan wrenched up his M-16, when with jarring abruptness he was back in Norp’s studio, with a splitting headache. The clasps were off his wrists and feet, and Chawaray leaned over him holding his shoulders and looking into his eyes. “Are you all right?”
Alan nodded, frowned. “What are you doing here?” Ten feet away Norp stood with crossed arms, glowering.
Chawaray smiled almost bitterly but spoke in his usual mellifluous voice. “You will recall, Alan, that when you departed I presented you with clothes?”
“You will recall also,: Chawaray said, “that I filmed you in Miami using equipment that was disguised as clothing?”
Alan nodded harder.
Chawaray spread his hands. “So perhaps it will not shock you if I say that all the clothes you received were also equipment for recording and transmitting.”
Chawaray looked into his eyes. “I apologize for the invasion of your privacy. But you were a hit with billions of viewers. I owed it to you to monitor your life temporarily to protect you from some unscrupulous operator–”
Norp jeered. “Why don’t you just say it? You wanted to ‘protect’ him from me. You never forgave me for stealing that little dancer from under your wing.”
Chawaray’s eyes narrowed. “I resent that you exploited Sheerana and corrupted her. That she died of chemical dependency–yet a child.”
“What you resent,” Norp shrieked, “is my talent! My success! You wish you had either!”
Chawaray stared. “I’ve never begrudged your success,” he said at last. “I regret how you squander your talent. On the superficial, the sensational.”
Norp threw a hand derisively in his direction.
He turned back to Alan. “All that she did was transmitted to my ship and recorded. An assistant alerted me that they’d forced you to connect to the reactivator. I called and let Norp know I had it all recorded. She allowed me to teleport on board.”
He glanced over his shoulder at Norp. “Under the law, she is liable to spend years in a correctional institution.”
Alan’s glance had been shooting like a pinball between Norp and Chawaray. “Wait a minute, Chawaray. Do we have to report all this?”
“Why wouldn’t we?”
“I might be willing to work with Norp. Maybe–” he stammered, “maybe we could make a deal.”
Comprehension began to steal across Chawaray’s face, and his eyes laughed. “Well, Alan, I’d say you’re in a strong bargaining position. Wouldn’t you agree, Norp?”
A few hours later, Alan and Chawaray sat in Norp’s communications room, listening over a translating device as she talked to her producer. At an oval blue table, Alan sat to Norp’s right, Chawaray to her left.
“Yeah, yeah, Norel,” Norp exclaimed, “it’s a new direction for me. First off, Alan and I make the documentary on him. That’s a hit, definitely. Then he works with me on a whole series of features about his world. I mean, with his viewer appeal the series is gonna be really hot, hot, hot. I’m like really excited. I’m going to spend the next six years doing features on this planet, with him as consultant. I mean, real in-depth journalism.”
By the time Norp finished talking, the producer had agreed to the series. He seemed as exited about it as Norp pretended to be. She cut off the communicator.
“Okay, so you got your deal.” She jerked her thumb at Alan. “But do I have to let him stay onboard?”
“Have you forgotten, Norp?” Chawaray tucked his chin slightly. “You agreed to arrange that Alan receive a talisman.”
A moue of distaste twisted her face.
Chawaray leaned back. “He has to have free access to your ship in order to use it.”
Norp glared at the ceiling. “All right, all right.”
“In six years,” Chawaray added, “you, Alan, and I will meet to decide where he goes from here.”
Norp looked ready to throw up.
One part of the deal, Alan thought, got her most. The Shawarans had a device called a remediator, used to develop a conscience in the sociopath. Chawaray insisted Norp use one, and he’d keep tabs on it.
Chawaray smiled at Norp. “Your work these six years may be a new high point for you.”
Alan’s headache had subsided, and he felt overwhelmed, pleasantly.
Chawaray’s eyes still smiled as he gazed at Norp and Alan. Then Chawaray looked out one of the portals, where twenty thousand miles below, Earth lay. “And what a period on which to report, Norp,” he exclaimed. “A planet approaching the early stages of civilization. Or will it self-destruct? What a subtext for your work!”
“I hope,” Norp growled, “we get one decent show.”
Alan leaned toward her. “I got some ideas.“
Norp rolled her bug eyes.
”Walking To Cape Canaveral” originally appeared in Allegory and is copyright 2009 by Allegory.