CHAPTER TWENTY EIGHT- Welcome back.
Perhaps before I continue, you should go back and re-read that very first chapter. Yes, the one where Ray Meadows fell asleep in a tree. I can wait. Matter of fact, I think I'll go fix a cup of tea while you do that. By the time you're done, the tea will be gone and we can both continue. That first chapter will now bring you right back to where we are in the story. I'll pick it up from there when you're ready.
You're back? Great. Let's get on with it then.
It was dark when Ray Meadows woke up. The stars were out, shining bright in the clear autumn sky. And it was cold. In those first few moments of wakefulness, his mind was spinning. Had he really been that sound asleep? Yes, he had. He could hardly believe it. He hadn't slept that soundly since- Well, since that climber fell out of the tree. Then it hit him: He was in a tree. An oak tree. This was weird. He tried to remember how he got there. How did he end up asleep in a tree in the middle of nowhere? The lights of the village below him offered memories and answers: He was just outside Lyndon, Illinois, in a live fallen tree on a hill east of town. He was waiting for climbers and he had a dog, Max, who should be asleep right below him.
He couldn't see Max, nor could he hear the dog's snoring. Yes, Max snored. Ray thought it was funny, to see a dog snore, and I guess it was. Max may not have thought so, though. Max was not right below him. Max, faithful companion that he was, had trotted home right after dark and was, even as you read, was sound asleep outside the apartment's front door. And yes, he was snoring. There was just no one there to appreciate the fact. Sam Bronan would walk out his own back door some time later, see Max lift his head up from the second story porch, and go up to let him in the apartment. It was the least he could do for such a good dog on a cold night.
Ray had not yet moved from his entirely too comfortable perch above the ground. Covered in Steve's old red barn coat, it was just too perfect where he was. If the tree fits, wear it. He did, however, let his eyes get adjusted to the darkness and looked around to admire his surroundings. A perfect night, with the stars out and the moon on the way. There were a few- very few- high thin clouds and a real chance for frost by morning. Ray could smell the harvested fields below him from the light breeze drifting up the hill. As his eyes scanned closer to the tree, he picked up movement just at the edge of his vision. A trick of the light- at night? Ray felt his body tense. There was something there. And there. And there. And over there. Oh, boy. Holding himself as perfectly still as he could, he let his eyes do the walking. What was out there? And more specifically, what was up there in the tree with him? He looked and, to both his delight and dismay, he saw.
There had to be at least half a dozen climbers up there in the tree with him. Some close, some further away. But all were turned to watch him. They could see that he was awake. They knew that before he did. Ray had to work hard to keep his breath under control and not send huge clouds of foggy dioxide out into the night. He didn't want to scare these things any more than he was right now.
What to do? And how to do it? What did he want to do? Ray's mind was reeling. Catch one/Don't touch one. Talk about your dilemmas. OK, he couldn't catch one. No rubber gloves, no protective clothing- and no cage to put one in. No cagey, no catchy. Ok, how about proof? Proof would be good. The climbers shifted their weight and swayed a bit around him. Did they all do that in unison? It seemed so. Weird, he thought. Like they all hear music he didn't. Ray strained to listen- Nope. No music that he could hear. Not yet anyway.
He could take their picture. That would work. That would be proof, right? The little camera had a built-in flash and motor drive. He could get a couple of shots off before they were gone. Sure, the second shot would be their backsides, but hey- It's a shot. Now, could he reach the camera in that coat pocket without bothering his new found friends? Ray had to remember: Where was that camera? Which pocket? And where was that pocket now that he was wearing the coat like a blanket over him? Ok, it had to be over here- to his left. Ray shifted his weight- and all the climbers tensed. Whoa- that's not going to work. Ray looked at the climber nearest him to his left. The climber looked back. Eye contact at about six feet. May as well amp up the voltage. It got bluer. Brighter. Ray couldn't move. All he could do was stare. Those eyes!
Climbers have perfect night vision. How could they not? All Ray could see was pupils- huge, glossy and black. Forget "the whites of their eyes". You weren't going to see them. Limpid pools? Try limpid black holes. So deep they went forever when you looked into them. Don't look at them. Ray looked. He could see the stars reflected in the climber’s eyes. The climber looked back. The climbers stopped moving. So did Ray. It created another odd still life in that old tree: The Staring Contest. Who- or what- would win this one? Ray couldn't look away. He was mesmerized- and on the verge of laughing out loud. He had never seen anything like this. The climber stared right back, matching Ray in every sway and twitch. In spite of the near-hypnotic effect of those black, black eyes, Ray was trying to find a plan of action. A way out. With their eyes locked, he found that any small movements he might make didn't bother the climbers so much. He could slowly fish through the pockets of the coat. Gently, slowly, and as silently as possible. Ray wondered: How was it that these things had such great hearing? They didn't have ears. No, they didn't. Didn't need them.
What the climbers had were ear drums- external ear drums covered with that same weird fur as the rest of their bodies. A large area on either side of their head was nothing more than a fur-covered ear drum. And like their eyes, it was proportionally huge. The climber nearest Ray could hear Ray's heart beating. That would come as no surprise to Ray right about now. He figured as loud as it was to him, the whole town could hear his heart beating. So of course the climber could. And in all honesty, it was not really beating all that strongly. Ray had remained amazingly calm for a man locked in a battle of wits with what amounted to an alien life form. As they stared and Ray quietly searched through the pockets of the coat, he came up with- a dog biscuit. Oh, bother. This was not quite what he was looking for. The camera must be in another pocket. Now what was he going to do with this? Without breaking that eye contact with the closest climber, Ray slowly brought his left hand out from under the coat and set the dog biscuit down on the trunk between them. Only after his hand was safely back under the coat did he manage to tear his gaze away.
Ray looked at the lights of the town below. Nice, quiet little place. And not so bad, once you get used to it. Or once they get used to you. He had, over the past months, met some nice people down there. Mostly easy going, hard working types. No rocket scientist in Lyndon, but that was ok. He could do without that intellectual/social upper crust. Just average people leading average lives. Not so bad at all. Ray let his eyes trace the roads and buildings below him, trying to find his apartment. Could he see it from here? There's the main road, there's the gas station- there's the scrapping noise of a climber on the tree and moving closer. Should he look over? How could he? How could he not? He hit on a plan. He closed his eyes. Slowly he tilted his head back and then over to the left, eyes still closed. And now opened, slowly. Oh boy. The climber was right there next to him. Still looking at him. This was dangerous.
What had been a not-so-terribly-uncomfortable six foot distance between Ray and the climber was now three feet, if that. The climber had moved forward, picked up the dog biscuit and stayed. Parked on that old tree trunk on its haunches, with it's front feet (Arms?) down, it looked more like a very odd dog than anything else. An odd and dangerously inquisitive dog. At least it wasn't glowing a brighter blue, ready for a major discharge that could easily launch Ray Meadows off that tree and into the field below. There was that. Ray had no idea what to do next. Back off? Might scare the thing. Sure don't want to do that. Maybe another doggie biscuit would work. Good climber, down boy. Ray slowly worked his left hand back through the coat pockets. They were hear some where. He had felt several of them in there the first time. But where? He made eye contact with the climber again. Maybe that would keep the thing from moving any closer. Then he couldn't help it- he did what any one else might have done: Ray smiled.
As his hand found the dog biscuits, the inane smile played across his face got a response from that climber close enough to zap him into next week. The climber smiled back. That had to be a smile. Ray Meadows was counting on it. Now there they were: Both sitting on an old oak tree, face to face and grinning like fools in the middle of the night. And one of them had dog-biscuit breath. Ray slowly held out another biscuit. Ray was not thinking too clearly. Too much smiling affects your ability to reason.
The climber less than an arm's length away reached out without breaking eye contact and took the biscuit from Ray's hand. The human in this little drama could feel the multi-layered claws on the climber's hand as it took the biscuit and the brush of the stiff blue hair of its fur. The flash of the climber's white, white teeth was muted by its hand with the biscuit as the animal from Not Here sampled another Milkbone. Ray felt a little remiss in not having ever eaten one of these things himself (the Milkbone, not the climber) Stop jumping to conclusions. Ray thought that maybe he'd try one (yes, a doggie biscuit) right then and there. May as well share a meal. After all, the climber was nice enough to take it from him and-
THE CLIMBER TOOK IT FROM HIM! AND RAY WAS STILL SITTING THERE! The reality of the situation finally came crashing through to Ray Meadows. He had touched a climber- or rather, had been touched by a climber- and NOT BEEN SHOCKED! Everything started spinning around Ray as he sat in that tree. What just happened here? And why? He should be in a smoldering heap about fifty yards down hill right now- Not munching out with the creatures from Xyphon X-1, planet of the high voltage beasts. That put him right over the edge- Almost literally. He nearly fell off his perch, and had to put a hand down to steady himself. A bit of restrained laughter did slip out, try as he may to stop it. These things are going to scatter like rabbits. Ray knew he was going to look back up and see nothing but an empty old tree. He sat back and looked.
They were still there. Ray got brave and turned his whole head to look around. They were all still there and still watching. Now they moved, swaying again to that music Ray still couldn't hear. What station did they have dialed in? And why couldn't he hear it? He wanted to hear it. He wanted to very much to hear it. His left hand came back out from under the coat with a fist full of biscuits. May as well be generous. Ray brought his right hand out and shifted the biscuits a bit. He offered one in the left hand to the climber that had taken the first one. the climber took it without incident. Ray was still alive and kicking, so to speak. At least unscathed. He shifted the biscuits back to his left hand and offered one out to the right and up, to a climber sitting just above. After some hesitation, it did reach down and took the treat. Ray felt a slight tingling there. Easy, boy. No need to die now. Were there any others that close? Ray looked around slowly. There was one down below him, almost on the ground. Too far to reach. He could hear the first two munching quietly on their treats. The others must be watching. Only one thing to do: Ray tossed (as gently as he could) a biscuit to his friend below. The climber reached up with both hands (paws?) and managed to trap the biscuit on its way down. Good catch, good boy. Maybe we'll try Frisbees tomorrow. Ray couldn't see any others close enough for that trick to work again. Only one thing left to do, and he did it. Ray would later describe them as crunchy and strongly flavored, but edible. The Milkbones, not the climbers. Geez- get a grip.
Ray spent the entire night in that old fallen oak tree. Even after he was out of dog biscuits and the climbers were long gone, leaving him unharmed but absolutely amazed, he sat there. The sky went from black to deep blue to morning. The town had gone from brightly lit in the evening to hardly a light at all late at night until morning and the sun came up behind him over the hill. Ray watched the line of sunlight sweep across the town, waking it up for another day. He had, after sleeping in the early evening, stayed completely wide awake throughout the night, watching the climbers and universe from his tree in the darkness. After the last dog biscuit was carefully dispensed, the climbers had hung around the tree for more than an hour before the started to get restless and move around. Ray, even as awake as he was at that point, had no desire to move. Just to watch. And he did, as the climbers one by one got down off the tree and, more or less as a group, made their way down the field, across the fences and ditches and road and disappeared in a stand of trees below Ray's vantage point. They went home. Maybe he should do the same. And he would have, had he not looked up into the night sky.
There's more than one place where the stars at night are big and bright. Matter of fact, just about any where outside of the cities will do. Ray Meadows had just leaned back on that tree, looked up and made himself comfortable. He pulled the coat around him for warmth and watched the sky. What was out there, really? He could name some of the constellations and a few of the stars. Even found Polaris, in the constellation Snowmobile. Seemed about right to Ray. All those old names were hopelessly outdated. Big Bear? Little Bear? What bear? Taurus? Looked more like "Geese Flying South" than some family sedan. The constellation Pleiades? How about the constellation "Get Your Eyes Checked"? Ray spent the night renaming the stars and heavens without ever seeing the true origin of the climbers. He was on the wrong part of the planet for that. But by dawn, he had his favorite: the constellation Elvis Does Vegas, formally known as Orion (Yes, I know, another over-the-top performer). But he couldn't help it. It just looked like the King standing there, holding up that microphone, scarves flying in the wind and kind of down on one knee, crooning to the crowd. If there had been but the hint of a mask, he would have left it alone, fine just the way it was as Orion. It had been a good night. A very good night. Thank you, thank you very much. The climbers have left the tree.
With the first light of dawn, Ray Meadows left his perfect arboreal perch and made his way back to earth- and promptly fell down. So much for legs mending. These legs were stiff and numb. Completely numb. Ray fell and rolled down the hill before he could put out his arms to stop himself. Made it halfway to the ditch on that first step. What a pain! He really thought he was doing ok up to now. No marathon runner, certainly, but this was uncalled for. He laid there for a minute or two, mentally checking himself out. Feet worked, toes still cold, legs hurt now but not overly so. Ok, try to stand up? Why not? Ray was thankful that even the local farmers didn't get out to their fields this early. What would they think? That the town crazy was also the town drunk? Quite likely. And he'd have to let them. No way could he explain this. Ray slowly- and very carefully- stood back up. His toes were still numb. Made it tough to stand and balance. Ok, Ray, you're vertical. Now what? Try to walk. Oh, this should be good for a laugh. He took a step. The horizon remained horizontal. Good. Try another. Slowly, one short step at a time, Ray began walking toward the road and home. Had his arms out like he was trying to balance on a beam other than Jim. He still had to get across that ditch, but it was all coming along much easier now. The ditch would not be a problem when he got there. Eventually.
Back at the apartment, Max had spent a wonderful night, warm and comfortable on the bed. Yes, Ray's bed. You really didn't expect him to sleep on the floor did you? At the first sound of Ray walking ever so slowly up those wooden stairs outside, Max was up and at the door. Ready to greet his master and go outside, in that order. Ray did wonder what had become of Max, but figured he was a grown dog and could take care of himself. Probably much better than Ray. He had no idea that the dog was smart enough to go home, get inside and get a good night's sleep on the bed. So why hadn't Max made breakfast, if that dog was so darn smart? Max did his big wiggly greet the master routine and then bounded down the stairs to do his water the world routine. He was one warm and happy puppy. And why not? He had managed a good night's sleep in a soft warm bed while his "master" spent the night in a tree. Life was good. Ray walked on in and began breakfast- for two. The dog had to eat.
Over the ensuing week, Ray Meadows changed his complete outlook and approach to the subject of climbers. They were no longer animals to be studied, certified and/or captured. He could close his eyes and see that one, right next to him, staring back. Silent and unmoving. What was it thinking? What was he thinking? He was thinking that these were things to be protected. He most definitely did not want to prove their existence now. Quite the opposite. He didn't want to have to prove anything to anybody. But he didn't mind knowing about them himself. Just Ray's little blue secret. Along with a few others. Maybe it was time to head for home: Greenwood, Indiana. He could be out of Lyndon and home by the end of the month. And back to normal, with only one footnote: He knew.
A phone call that afternoon to Barbara put everything in motion: Her parents would drive her home the following weekend and he would meet them there Saturday afternoon. Ray spent the rest of the day packing and arranging- and talking to Sam Bronan. That was part of the arranging. Ray bought the truck. Never even haggled the price Sam quoted. Just said no problem and wrote out a check. No problem. Ray also arranged for a long term lease on the apartment for weekends and vacations. Sam had no idea why anyone would want to vacation in Lyndon. Then again, maybe he did. He never really came out and said, but Ray had caught Sam looking up at the trees about three times too often at night. Did he know? He must know. Lived there all his life. Must have seen them. Ray never asked. Didn't have to now.
Jake Jacobson had kept the Meadows' house in good shape. In good shape for an empty house, anyway. Both Barbara and Ray still had there work cut out for them to get it back to that lived in look. But now they could do it without distractions. The news media had long since gone on to other silly stories. That stretch of lonely interstate got the federal funding treatment- two miles worth of high-powered mercury-vapor lamps out there in the middle of nowhere. But it worked. The climbers were a bit leery of all that competing wattage. They stayed away and eventually migrated away to areas with friendlier (darker) woods and fewer fast cars. The Meadows never heard from Steve Vaan again. Ray stopped looking. With all the turmoil, Ray never figured out what happened to his driver's license or credit card. Lost in the shuffle, no doubt. Got new ones, never missed the old ones. But he did want to know where his old grey coat and wooly hat went. He did miss those. Good thing he kept Steve's barn coat. An even trade, maybe better. The barn coat was lined and the boots fit, with two pair of socks.
Max the Wonder Dog, always up for a truck ride, reveled in the ride to his new home in the suburbs of Indianapolis. Talk about your new smells! He was in doggie heaven. Even had a front porch to sleep on in the afternoons now and some one there to pet him night and day. Life could not be better for any dog. Barbara was amazed to meet Max. She had been told- or warned- but still, this was one great dog. The perfect addition to their two-story house. And he did look good on that front porch.
By the last weekend in September, Ray, Barbara and Max were all at home and settled in. The climbers were not forgotten, just put on hold. Long-term hold. Yes, they were out there, even in Greenwood. And now Ray knew how to get close to them any time he wanted. Just sit up in the tree. He could do that, but he didn't. Not around Greenwood, anyway. That's what Lyndon was for. The Meadows went back to that little apartment every chance they got. Three day vacations were spent there and long holidays were spent there, except for Christmas and New Years. Some times were best spent at home. Your real home. And on some of those long weekends, Ray would spend at least one night out in The Tree. Had to go see some old friends. Barbara didn't mind. Maybe some day she'd go with him to say "Hi". Or whatever it was these things said. No hurry, she could wait. The gun- the Walther PPK, a la' James Bond- was carefully cleaned, greased and packed away. No need any more. No need then, but they didn't know it at the time. All the references to climbers on the 'Net had shriveled up and blown away. Ray did nothing to stop it and everything he could to help it along. The electronic silence was also golden.
Granville Corporation had a big "Welcome Back" party for Ray. True, not everyone had the slightest idea- or the true story- about his absence, but one and all were glad to see him back. And well in time for next years' April Fools Prankfest. Mister G. himself had taken Ray aside to let him know how much he was missed- And what did he have planned for next year? Ray could only smile and wink. There must be something he hadn't done. Yet. Ray was walking better every week, now that he wasn't sleeping in trees all that much any more.
By the time Thanksgiving rolled around, The Meadows hadn't given a thought to climbers in almost a month. Their last real concern had been on Halloween night. Ray had some misgivings that maybe with all that tabloid publicity some months ago, there's be glowing blue costumes out that year for kids to wear. Maybe something battery powered, with cattle prods in the arms. He needn't have concerned himself. By the time October rolled around, climbers were long past old news or hot items. There were no kids in blue, and that was about the last time he had to think about it. What did climbers do in the winter? Ray left that to others to find out. He and Max were happy to spend their winter curled up by the television, eating popcorn and watching Barbara fall asleep first. Max secretly thought it was hilarious that she snored. Dogs do smile. True, Ray and Barbara Meadows didn't have the fame or fortune from having discovered climbers or proven their existence, but they had their lives back, and that was better. It was all they ever wanted.
It was some time after the start of a new year, in the deep, cold confines of an English winter. The sun had set almost immediately after rising. It knew a futile effort when it saw one. In the large country home surrounded by old trees, a fire was roaring in the main room. More logs were stacked alongside, ready for a long night of warm against the weather. Having been well fed for quite some time, the fire had done an admirable job of warming the room. It was warm, dry and had the smoky scent of a hunting lodge, even if it wasn't. This was, after all, Arthur Crutchfield's estate. No guns allowed. You might be tempted to shoot something you shouldn't. The owner of this fine warm room was comfortable seated near the fire, hot cocoa in hand. Third hot cocoa, I might add. Anne Wright had a way with hot cocoa. Her way. And her way did in fact involve a dash of good brandy, added just after the cocoa meets the cup. If Arthur Crutchfield knew- and he most likely did- he never mentioned it. It was to be her little secret.
After three mugs of the stuff, Arthur Crutchfield was feeling a bit, well, warm. And it wasn't the fire. Steven Forester had spent the evening with them, and they spoke of a great many things- at first. Eventually, sometime after the second cup of cocoa, the conversation ended up on what the conversation always ended up on- climbers. Although she had never really seen one (so she said), Anne had read Crutchfield's book and listened to both Arthur's and Steven's stories on the subject. Many times over. And she knew that Steven was carrying on Arthur's work out there on the estate. Sure, she would distract him ever once in a while, but over all, Steven was there to study the animals in the woods. Tonight's topic was a bit more philosophical- the subject was, pardon the reference, the origin of the species. You might title the whole thing, "From where? And if so, how?" Good questions, both.
"So, Arthur, if we assume that they come from off this planet, how did they get here? They don't look capable of piloting anything more complex than a stick."
Steven had not been sampling the cocoa near as much as Arthur. Anne, on the other hand, was working on it. Had to make sure it was just right.
"They were brought, Steven."
"Brought? By whom?"
"Don't you mean, 'By what?'"
"Alright- By what? You mean some other life form carted these things through space just to leave them here?"
"So it would seem. They certainly aren't from around here."
"You know I agree with you there, by why? Why would some one- or some thing- drop these things on Earth? They aren't exactly going to take over the planet, Arthur."
"No, they aren't. I don't think that was the intent."
Steven decided that maybe he was feeling a bit cocoa deficient. He gulped down about half a mug of the stuff. There. That was better.
"Alright, then: Why are they here? Why go through all that trouble to get them here if not to populate a new planet?"
"How about to get them off the planet they're on?"
"Huh? I don't follow you."
"Have some more cocoa, Steven. It's really marvelous stuff. Nectar of the gods."
Steven complied. Willingly. Yes, this was good stuff. No doubt. Arthur continued as Steven drank. Anne was ready to refill any empty mugs that might appear.
"Think about all the animals on this planet, Steven. The animals you saw just in North America."
"What about them?"
"Weren't there any there that people considered pests? Troublesome or dangerous?"
"Well, yes. Of course."
"And what did you do about them?"
"Shot them and ate them, mostly."
Arthur Crutchfield laughed, spilling his cocoa which made him laugh even more. It was very good cocoa.
"Alright, there you are! That's it exactly!"
Now Steven realized he was seriously behind in his cocoa consumption. He had no idea what Arthur was going on about now. Anne refilled both their mugs and sat down with her own to listen. Steven took the opportunity to add a log to the fire. Arthur waited until they both had settled to continue.
"What if you couldn't shoot them?"
"Oh, I don't know. Traps I guess."
"No, no, no. You couldn't hurt them. Not at all."
"But they're pests, right?"
"Oh, yes. Genuine pests. A real problem."
"And I can't hurt them?"
"Not in the least."
"Then I guess I'd try to move them some place . . . far. . . . . away. That's it!"
"Yes. Isn't it? You'd find a sort of Intergalactic Botany Bay. Someplace where they'd be safe from you and you'd be safe from them."
"So you think that these things come from a place where, for what ever reason, they just aren't good eating?"
"So close, Steven. You were so close. Keep trying, you'll get it. They may come from a place where animals can't be, or won't be, harmed. Someplace where life, however annoying, is respected."
"But now they're here."
"So they must be truly annoying, don't you think?"
"For someone- or some thing- to cart them across the galaxy just to get them out of town? I'd say so."
Anne had been silent all this time, taking it all in. She felt it was time to clarify it all, if only for herself.
"So what you're saying, Arthur, is that these things were considered problem animals some place else and were gently gathered up and brought here to live, out of harm's way?"
"Something like that. Wherever they're from must be rather like this. Close enough to being like this that they could survive, but not ruin their new home."
Anne tried a bit of her own medicine- the cocoa. Say this was good. She had it just about right tonight. After two good sips, she continued:
"Tricky business, finding a home like that. Get it a little bit wrong and the animals would either all die off or take over. How could they be so sure they had it right?"
Arthur was all smiles now. If this was a chess game, he'd have her in check in the next two moves.
"They can't be sure, and I don't think they always get it right."
Steven jumped in without thinking.
"What makes you say that?"
Arthur turned on him for the checkmate. Not a moment to lose.
"What makes you think the climbers are the first annoying things dropped off on this planet just to get them out of the way?"
"Why? What else is out there, Arthur?"
"We are, Steven. We are. And we took over."
To Be Concluded...
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Copyright 1996,2010 Chip Haynes