Alice Cameron lived at the end of a long, tree-lined drive. Few would even notice her three-bedroom farmhouse tucked under the shade of the hillside, and she liked it that way.
“Neighbors are like fleas,” her grandpa used to say. “It doesn’t seem like they would bother you, but once you get one, you usually end up with several.”
What her grandpa said made sense to Alice. She watched the area where she grew up change from a few scattered farms to subdivisions in a matter of ten years. Once people “discovered” the beautiful countryside, they told others, who told others, and so on, until the beauty was destroyed by the influx of people.
Grandpa’s heart would have broken to see what happened to the place he loved most in the world.
Alice searched carefully for a secluded piece of property where she could build her home. She considered that eighty-acre plot her sanctuary. The surrounding large tracts of land were undeveloped and owned by people who had no desire to live so far out in the sticks. They used the land primarily as a hunting spot a few weeks a year, and the rest of the time Alice was completely alone on her piece of paradise.
It’s not that she didn’t like people. She was a nurse and enjoyed her patients and coworkers. People enjoyed her bubbly personality and quick wit. At the end of the day, however, Alice wanted the peace and quiet of her farm. Her dogs, cows, and chickens were the only companionship she craved outside of work.
That’s why she was so disappointed when construction crews cleared land two miles down the road from her farm. Each week “progress” continued on the construction project. Whatever home was being built was down a long driveway and not visible from the dirt road.
Hmm… Maybe someone else wants to be left alone out here too. Still, I’d rather they’d found another place to build.
There wasn’t much she could do about it, though. It was, after all, still a free country, and other property owners had the right to build homes there if they wanted to. Alice vowed to keep her distance, however.
I don’t need someone coming over to borrow a cup of sugar or wanting to sit on the porch to chitchat.
To Alice’s surprise and relief, workers installed an imposing and elaborate gate at the entrance of the new neighbors’ drive. Intricate designs decorated the wrought iron bars, and unusual insignias, perhaps Arabic or some other language, were embossed on the concrete pillars holding the gate panels.
Great. Looks like foreigners. At least they don’t seem to want company either.
A few months went by and construction activity ended. Late one night, Alice awoke to lights flashing around the vicinity of the new house.
They sure picked a weird time to move in. I didn’t even hear the moving van.
Dead tired from a twelve-hour shift at the hospital, a bleary-eyed Alice crawled back into bed. She wasn’t the type to be nosy, and she would afford the new people the same respect she expected in return.
Alice went about her routine as the days passed. With winter approaching, she had plenty to do. She needed to stack hay for the animals, and there was wood to cut for her fireplace. She used propane as her main heat source, but she found comfort in curling up on the couch with a cozy fire blazing in the fireplace as she watched winter birds eating from the feeders.
Alice had a soft spot for things that flew. Grandpa bought her a bird identification book when she was five, and she still loved tracking what species came to her feeders.
She never had the heart to cage a bird that could take flight. To satisfy her love of feathered creatures, she raised chickens. They couldn’t fly far on their own, and the flock seemed to appreciate her doting.
As winter’s grip found its way into the world, it dawned on Alice that she hadn’t seen any activity coming from the neighbors. She knew someone lived there. Smoke billowed from their chimney, and on rare occasions, delivery trucks dropped packages off at the ornate gate. She had yet to see anyone who lived there, however.
I sure hope it’s not some weird religious cult. I don’t need a Waco to happen next door.
Alice imagined police helicopters flying overhead, dramatic footage on news stations, and a sensational inferno ending her solitude. No doubt the infamy of the cult would lead to onlookers, and onlookers would lead to people thinking how pretty this area was, and she knew what that led to.
No, please don’t let them be fanatics or nut jobs.
Shrugging it off, she continued life as it always was. She went to work and spent twelve hours on her feet changing IV drips and catheters while dealing with sometimes difficult patients—and even more difficult doctors. Her sense of humor carried her through most shifts. Most of the time, the monotony was the worst aspect of working evenings. One night, however, an interesting case entered the doors.
A woman in her late sixties with a burning rash on her extremities was wheeled in by ambulance. Normally, the EMTs stayed for a moment, but they must have had another call because they left before anyone could speak to them about the patient.
Alice had never seen anything like the woman’s injuries. The attending doctor, however, had seen a lot in his forty years as a physician. He ordered medication and told the nurses assigned to that room to apply the prescription cream and then wrap gauze around the woman’s affected areas. She was to be placed under a lamp, much the same as jaundiced babies are put under, for one hour, four times a day. During daylight hours, the shades to her room were to be drawn.
The woman, a Marjorie Henson, according to the papers left with her on the stretcher, was unconscious and immediately admitted to the hospital. The treatment required a number of days to complete according to Dr.Steinman. Monitors checked her vitals, and an IV drip was started. Antibiotics began as a precautionary measure.
This almost looks like a burn of some sort, but her skin isn’t reacting like a burn patient’s skin normally would. What are those blisters? They look green.
While unusual, it wasn’t the first odd case Alice had treated, so she shrugged her shoulders and followed the doctor’s instructions. Her best friend at work, Janice, was also on duty that night. Together they wound the gauze and placed the woman under the lamp. It took two people to lift her as she was rather large.
Down at the nurses’ station, Janice rubbed her aching neck. “We sure see some doozies, don’t we, Alice?”
“Yes, we do. I’ve never seen blisters on someone quite like Mrs. Henson’s. I’ve never heard of this treatment, either, but Dr. Steinman was confident this would do the trick.”
Right before visiting hours ended, Mrs. Henson’s son arrived.
“Hi, I’m Lenny Henson. I’m hoping to see my mother.”
Alice and Janice looked at the clock. It was a quiet night on the floor, and while policy said no visitors were allowed after nine o’clock, exceptions could be made. Neither wanted to make him leave. He looked frazzled and worried.
What could be the harm?
“Sure, come this way. As long as you’re quiet, you can stay as long as you want to. There’s no one in 12-B tonight, so she won’t have a roommate to disturb.”
“Thank you. You don’t know what this means to me.”
The two women smiled and escorted him down the hall.
The next night, Lenny arrived at the same time. He held two bouquets of flowers for the nurses.
“I know it’s an inconvenience to have me show up like this, so I wanted to bring you something special.”
“Mr. Henson, you didn’t have to do that.”
“No, I insist. Call me Lenny. I can’t get away from my work at home until after dark. I really can’t go anywhere until after dark. I appreciate the good care you are taking of my mother.”
“Well, thank you. We’ll put these in some water.”
“I appreciate it. It takes a while to get into town from McGinty Road.”
Alice stopped. “McGinty Road? You live on McGinty Road?”
“Yes, ma’am. We’ve been there since early last fall.”
“So you are my neighbor?”
Lenny cocked his head slightly. “Do you drive a blue Chevy?”
“I do. You have a rather impressive gate at your drive. We haven’t had a chance to meet yet.”
“That’s true. We like to keep to ourselves. We don’t mean to be rude.”
“No, it’s completely okay. I’m the same way you are.”
Lenny gave her a look, as though he doubted something she’d said.
“Truly, I’m not much of a socializer,” Alice added.
“Oh, yeah. Now I see what you’re saying. We prefer to be homebodies. I’m glad you understand.”
Once at Mrs. Henson’s room, they parted ways. Lenny stayed until nearly two in the morning, and throughout the evening Alice and Lenny shared several friendly exchanges as she checked his mother’s vitals.
“He seems nice enough, but he’s a little socially awkward, don’t you think?” Janice asked as she returned from the supply cabinet with a new box of gloves.
“Yeah, it’s obvious he doesn’t get out much. He seems shy, and just… different. I hope not everyone who lives on McGinty Road is that eccentric.”
“Oh, I don’t know. I hear his neighbor is a weird one.”
Alice snorted. She always snorted when she laughed hard. “Yeah, that Alice Cameron is a weird one, for sure.”
The next night Lenny arrived at his usual time.
“Is she still unconscious?” Lenny asked as he approached the desk. This time he carried two boxes of chocolates.
Too bad I can’t find a boyfriend who’s as attentive.
Alice never could turn down chocolate. She gladly took the boxes. “Oh, these are the really good kind. Thank you so much, Lenny. I’ll make sure Janice knows they’re here when she’s done in Room 3.”
Throughout the night the trio became familiar with each other, and conversations lasted longer when other patients had been cared for.
At around midnight, Lenny stood in his mother’s room with his forehead pressed against the window overlooking the hospital courtyard. Deep in thought, he sighed occasionally.
“The stars are beautiful tonight.” Lenny turned to the nurses. “Do you ever just sit and stare at the stars?”
“I do, sometimes, when I’m sitting on my porch on a warm evening like this. As you know, we’re the only ones out there on McGinty Road, so there aren’t any lights to dull their sparkle.”
“That’s true. It’s one of the reasons why we chose that spot to build our compound.”
“I mean house. Excuse the slip. I’m a military pilot. I think in military terms.”
Janice gave Alice a skeptical glance. Lenny was short—maybe 5’6” with shoes on. He was on the pudgy side and didn’t resemble anyone’s image of a military man.
To break the awkward silence, Alice thought she’d better say something.
“The military. Well, you must have traveled to some interesting places.”
“Oh, I have.” Lenny’s eyes twinkled, and he stood a bit straighter. “I’m very proud of my service.”
Both women nodded in agreement. Lenny turned back to the window as his mother’s dressings were changed.
Most men are squeamish.
“Do either of you believe in UFOs?”
Alice and Janice finished the last of the dressing changes, and as they removed their gloves, the women shot each other looks, unsure how to take Lenny’s question.
“I’m sorry, Lenny. What did you say?” Janice had a habit of asking people to repeat something she was nervous about.
Turning from the window, he faced them. “It’s not a typical question, I’m sure, but I asked if you believe in UFOs. Do you think there are aliens out there?” He pointed toward the window and the sky.
Alice, a lifelong science fiction buff, spoke first. “Actually, I think it’s possible. Why should we be the only beings in the universe?”
“What about you, Janice?”
“Oh, my mother and I have talked about it from time to time. She’s a big fan of those shows. She even bought herself a telescope thinking she might spy a UFO. All she’s ever seen is the occasional shooting star. She’s still got the thing set up on our back deck.”
“Your mother lives with you?”
“Yes, she has since Dad died two years ago. It’s just easier that way.”
“I completely understand. My parents live with me for the same reason.” Lenny patted his mother’s still hand. “I insisted they move in. They needed someone to watch over them, and they’re so much help with the lab.”
“Lab?” Alice raised her eyebrows. “Is that why you have a gate?”
“Oh, yes. We thought security would be important.”
A pause filled the air.
“Would you like to see it? The offer stands for both of you—and your mother, Janice. I have some UFO artifacts you might be interested in.”
“Wait—you’ve seen UFOs?” Alice nearly had to put her jaw back in its socket.
“I’ve seen them. I’ve been on them. Would you like to find out more? As I said, you can bring your family, if you would like, to our home. I just ask for discretion. We deal with sensitive government contracts, as you can imagine.”
Oh, I can imagine they’d be very sensitive. This sounds fascinating.
“I’m game!” Before this moment, Alice hadn’t realized that she sought some excitement in her life—and she wouldn’t even have to leave McGinty Road to find it.
“I’m sure Mom would kill me if she ever found out I passed up this opportunity, so count us in too.
“Splendid. When is the next night you have off work?”
“Tomorrow,” they said in unison.
“How about you meet me at my house at 8:00 tomorrow night? Just park at the gate, and I’ll let you in.” He looked at his mother and the monitor displaying the rhythmic beating of her heart. “I’m sure she will be fine for one evening without a visitor.”
The next night Janice and her mother met Alice at her house. She was the only coworker who had ever been to Alice’s hideaway home in the woods, and that spoke volumes about Alice’s opinion of Janice.
“Jerry couldn’t come with us tonight. He was sent on an emergency call. Electricians kind of have to go when a customer has a serious problem. Mr. Patterson’s weatherhead on his house was damaged by this morning’s storm, and he needs it working for his wife’s oxygen machine, so Jerry left. He told me to tell you he‘ll miss seeing you, Alice.”
“Oh, he’s just sorry he isn’t here for some of my chocolate chip cookies. Here, grab a few and we’ll be on our way.”
Alice held the platter out for Janice and her mother, Connie.
“Oh, these are still warm. Thank you, dear.” Connie grabbed a third and fourth one for good measure.
Soon the three of them pulled up to the gate. Lenny stood in the dark waiting for them. Alice jumped when he appeared at her driver’s side window.
“Excellent. You’re right on time. Give me a moment to put my dog up, then I’ll open the gate for you. Thank you for coming by. We wouldn’t invite just anyone here, but it’s so important to have good neighbors.”
Lenny smiled, stepped back behind the gate which closed after him, and whistled for his dog.
“That’s not any ordinary dog. What is that thing, Alice?”
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen one like that.” Alice rolled her window up for a little added protection.
Connie chimed in. “It sure looks to me like one of those wolves we saw when your father and I went to Yellowstone.”
Yes, a wolf. It certainly looks like a wolf.
Alice thought of her sweet English shepherds and her little shih tzu and wondered why anyone would need a beast the likes of Lenny’s “dog.”
A few moments later, the metal gates slowly opened. As the car approached the house—a mansion, really—the three women couldn’t help but gawk. In addition to the house, three or four other large buildings lined the paved drive.
“When he said ‘compound,’ he wasn’t exaggerating.” Alice pointed at a building to her left. “That looks for all the world like a hangar.”
“It most definitely does, dear.” Connie had already had more excitement than she’d had in a while—not since she dialed a wrong number and enjoyed an hour-long conversation with some nice man in Brooklyn. She couldn’t contain her glee.
Lenny met them in the circle drive in front of the Spanish-style villa. They introduced him to Connie, and then Lenny walked them inside. While not posh, it was splendid in its own eclectic way. Artwork, including detailed sculptures, decorated each room as Lenny gave them a tour.
Is that an African mask? Native American, perhaps? Lenny did say he had traveled many places.
A tall man, exceptionally tall, in fact, entered the living room where Lenny sat with the ladies. He smiled and extended his hand to greet them.
“Good evening. It’s nice to meet you. Lenny has told me so much about you. I’m Lenny’s father, Melvin.”
He doesn’t look a thing like Lenny, but then again, family genetics can be strange. I look nothing like my sister.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Melvin. Your family has a lovely home. Thank you for having us over.”
“Alice, right?” He looked to his left. “And you must be Janice. Lenny has described you so perfectly, I feel like I already know you.”
His comments raised the hairs on Alice’s arms, and his oddly long arms and hands didn’t help matters, but it was the photo hanging on the wall that captured everyone’s attention.
“That’s a nice shot, isn’t it?” Melvin beamed.
“Is Lenny standing next to what I think it is? Is that really a UFO?” Alice stared in disbelief.
“That it is. It’s been a while since that was taken. Would you like to see some more?” Lenny nodded towards his father who motioned for the women to follow him down a hallway.
“If you need to use the restroom, it’s this door to the left, ladies. We’re going to the control room at the end of the hallway.”
Janice squeezed Alice’s hand for support. Connie looked like she was on a grand adventure.
Maybe at her age she’s not as worried about death, but I am. Are these people crazy? Are we going to be on the next missing persons show? This may have been a mistake.
Lenny pulled a strange triangular-shaped object from his pants pocket. About three inches in length, it filled his pudgy hand.
“Give me just a moment ladies. There’s a code I must enter as well.” He flipped open what could have passed for a wall thermostat and punched numbers on a keypad.
A clunking sound signaled that the door unlocked. Lenny turned the handle and ushered them in. “Control room” aptly described what they saw. Panels and switchboards with flashing lights filled the room. Monitors lined the walls, most flipping from view to view like those behind the scenes at Las Vegas casinos. Alice wasn’t sure exactly what was shown on the monitors, but the room was quite busy. Computer screens rolled digital readouts across them, and an occasional buzzer or bell went off. Sitting on one desk was a red phone.
Lenny saw Alice staring at the phone. “That’s our direct line. Anytime anyone—anywhere—wants to contact us, they use that red phone.”
More UFO photos hung on the walls.
Connie, never one to hold her tongue around strangers, said, “Just what movie studio did you take these pictures at? I don’t recognize these from any movies I’ve seen—and I’ve seen about all of them. Although, that alien character there with Melvin looks like one of those beings from War of the Worlds.”
Melvin cleared his throat and shifted from one leg to the next as he stood behind the ladies. “Connie, I can assure you that these are not movie props. They are real aliens and ships.”
Connie squinted her eyes as she peered closer at the photograph. “Ya don’t say? I’ve waited my whole life to see one in real life. Do you think there’s any chance you could introduce me to one?”
Lenny and Melvin stood in awkward silence. Then Lenny spoke up. “Miss Connie, we work in very classified conditions. I’m afraid such a meeting is not possible. However, would you like to hear some of the recorded interviews we have with the aliens?”
“Recordings? Ya don’t say?”
Connie wasn’t the only one interested. Alice and Janice silently nodded their heads up and down.
“Very well. You must understand something first, however. There is a battle going on up there.” Melvin pointed his long index finger upwards toward the sky. “There are good aliens, and there are evil ones.”
“How come none of this is on the news then?”
Janice nudged Connie with her elbow. “We don’t want to be rude, Mother.”
No kidding. We don’t know what these people might do.
“It’s quite all right, I assure you. She reminds me of my dear Marjorie, always asking questions that make our son, Lenny, uncomfortable.”
Right then, Lenny came from a back room with reels of tape and an audio machine.
For the next several hours (time got away from them, and none of the women knew just how long they had been there), they listened to computerized voices on the recordings.
“Their languages have been synthesized by our computer program so they are audible to humans—I mean us, people” Melvin gave Lenny a stern look.
Aliens from planets far beyond our own solar system shared their messages with Earth. There were the usual promises of peace and good will. A few mentioned the galactic warfare Melvin had previously talked about.
The longest recording came from an alien named Insinyor, or at least that’s what it sounded like. Alice secretly jotted down notes on a pad she kept in her purse while supposedly searching for a piece of gum.
Insinyor told of plans for his people to one day make themselves known to humankind. He told of epic battles to protect this planet. He spoke of faraway planets and gave details that were meaningless to the three captivated women in the room. Melvin and Lenny, however, nodded in agreement from time to time and interjected the occasional “yes” or “absolutely” in support of what the alien said.
Finally, Lenny shut the audio machine off. “There are so many other tapes, however, you have gotten the gist of our research. Now, if you please, I will escort you to your vehicle.”
Melvin rose. “Thank you for a lovely evening. We do so enjoy having you as a neighbor.” He shook Alice’s hand, then those of Janice and her mother.
Lenny walked them to Alice’s Chevrolet. “Ladies, it’s been a pleasure. Alice, may I speak with you for a moment privately?”
Glancing towards her two friends, Alice tried to act fearless as she strolled down the walk with Lenny.
“I realize this was a lot to take in. Please understand that we allowed you insight into our lives for two reasons. First, we are forever indebted to you for the marvelous care you have given my mother. She has a rare skin condition. Sunlight causes terrible blisters, far worse than a normal sunburn. We received a call from Dr. Steinman earlier letting us know she is conscious and ready for release. I can’t thank you enough for the care you have given her—and for the kindness you have shown me.”
“Lenny, we’ve been happy to care for your mother. We’ve devoted our lives to caring for those in need. As far as being kind to you, there’s no need to thank us. We like you.”
Lenny lifted his face to the sky. For a moment, Alice thought he might cry. He took a deep breath and exhaled slowly.
“What was the other thing?” Alice now looked at the sky too.
“You said there were two reasons you had us over tonight. What is the second?”
“You’re a good neighbor, Alice. When we moved here, you didn’t try to force yourself into our lives. You gave us our—space. That means so much to us.”
“I think we both live out here to have our privacy.”
“Yes, it’s true.”
The two stood in silence for a moment.
“Listen, Alice. To a certain extent, we are kindred souls. What you learned tonight is true. There is a great battle raging over this planet. The government keeps it secret. No more than twenty people in the world—and now you three ladies—know of this war. Things could become dangerous someday, and if you ever need us, please call us. Our red phone works both directions. We will help. After all, it’s important to be a good neighbor.”
With that, he walked her back to the car and bid them goodnight.
The three women sat in silence as Alice drove them to the opened gate then to her own home two miles away. The stars blazed brightly, and a full moon illuminated their faces through the windshield.
Only once they were inside the farmhouse did they let their guard down.
“I’ve never been so frightened and excited and enthralled at the same time!” Connie grabbed three more cookies off the platter on the countertop as she spoke.
“Mother, I know this was a huge event in your life—in all our lives. I don’t think we should ever speak of this to anyone outside the three of us. What do you think, Alice?”
“I agree. It could be dangerous.”
The three women swore to carry the secret with them to their graves.
The next night at work, Marjorie Henson was no longer in Room 12-A. The day shift had no record of her being discharged, but she was gone.
Life resumed its normal routine. Alice never again saw Melvin or Lenny, and if she was busy, it was possible to forget for a moment or two that the compound existed.
Two months later, sitting on her porch enjoying a late summer evening, Alice witnessed a spectacular meteor shower.
Funny, I hadn’t heard on the news that one was expected. They usually make a big hoopla when these things happen.
The next morning on her way to work something caught her eye. The gate to the compound was flung open.
Maybe I’m crazy, but I feel like I should drive to the house to see if they’re okay.
Pulling into the circle drive, she saw the doors wide open to the house. The scene looked like the hasty eviction of renters who had squatted too long and who fled into the night.
The next night, the meteor shower continued.
Two days later, a delivery truck driver knocked on Alice’s farmhouse door.
“A package for Alice Cameron.”
“Here you are, ma’am.”
He handed her a nondescript white box.
“No need to sign. Have a good day.”
Stepping inside the house, she set the box on the kitchen counter and pulled a steak knife from the utensil drawer to slit the packing tape open.
Inside, wrapped in tissue, was the one item Alice would never forget from the compound: the triangular key. A note sat at the bottom of the box.
Please use the red phone. It’s urgent. The war tides have turned. The code is 86392.