All else failing, Jack drives to Maine in the hope of separating Molly from her kidnappers. En route, he is latched onto by a beautiful, predatory extra-terrestial named Mary who wants him to father her child. An auto accident in which Mary is nearly killed causes an apparent change of heart in Jack’s seeming heartless companion.
Before we could continue our search for Molly, Mary felt honor-bound to return some items she had taken by force from a convenience store during her heartless pre-conversion period.
What she didn’t realize was that it was more dangerous to return stolen goods than to acquire them in the first place. Also, which no one had told her (and she probably wouldn’t have believed anyway), it wasn’t acceptable to return goods taken from one convenience store to another albeit in the same chain.
After three failed attempts, her faith seemed to be wavering. When a cop confiscated her goods and threatened to arrest her for being a public nuisance, she zapped him with her reptilian tongue. At which point, his colleague sent a “police officer down” message to the nearest headquarters, earning us in short order a flock of pursuers.
We did what we could, traveled on side roads, exchanged license plates twice with parked cars, but every time we thought we had gotten away, there was someone else, some unanticipated pursuer behind us.
Mary alternated between rueful complaint and angry self-justification. One moment, she was ready to give herself up and the next she would chide me by saying, “If you had given me a baby this never would have happened.”
“I liked you better when you were heartless,” I said.
She stopped the car at the side of the road and told me to get out. When I refused, reminding her that I had a broken leg she said, “I hate you,” and got out herself and walked off in the opposite direction, which is to say the direction of the pursuing car, which I recognized as it got closer.
It was the scientists and they drove slowly alongside Mary, one of them talking to her through an open window, urging her or so it seemed to come inside.
I was watching through my rear view mirror, feeling anxious, but not sure on whose account. Mary stopped momentarily to say something to her interlocutor when a blinding light flashed from one of the windows of the car.
When after several minutes, the light dissipated, Mary was gone, which is to say not even a telltale ash remained in the wake of her disappearance.
I felt oddly rueful all things considered and rolled down the window of my car to shout something incoherent at the scientists who seemed to be celebrating their accomplishment.
“If it weren’t for you,” one of them called to me, “we never would have gotten to her.”
I tried to slide over into the driver’s seat, but for each inch gained, the broken leg threw off spasms of pain.
When the head scientist asked me where I was heading, I felt I knew the answer, that it was there waiting for me to access it, but I couldn’t quite put it into words. The encounter with the tree had scrambled my brains.
He offered to take me back to the hospital in their car, but I said I would be all right if they got me a walking stick. As it turned out, they had a spare one in the trunk of their van which they seemed pleased to give me. Nevertheless, I promised to return it as soon as my leg healed sufficiently to get around without it. I didn’t want to be in debt to these murderers.
It was hard to get rid of them and since I could no longer remember where I had been going, I agreed to accompany them to this private sex club one of them knew about. Killing the dangerous alien, they told me, would not seem like the accomplishment it was unless they celebrated it appropriately.
I left my car at the side of the road and joined them in their van and we all drank cheap champagne and toasted one another as we drove through the night to wherever it was we were going—I could no longer remember—figuring it would pass the time until the sense of purpose I had lost revealed itself once again.
You had to wear a mask to get into what the scientists referred to as the Nameless Club and if you didn’t bring one with you, you wore the one they assigned you or you were asked to leave.
The scientists, who knew the drill, came prepared. The head man wore a mask of Peter Sellers as Dr. Strangelove. Another wore a mask of John F. Kennedy. The final two had on lifelike masks of vaguely recognizable second line film stars.
Before we each went our own way, we agreed to meet at the entrance in exactly three hours.
I was issued the mask of an orangutan and I had to leave my driver’s license with the doorman as hostage to its return. It was an eerie place—it could have been the set for a vampire movie— and in short order I regretted my decision to come along.
For a while I wandered around looking for a place to sit, but there were no chairs in the main hall. So I ended up leaning against a wall, watching the passing scene through the slit holes of my mask.
The large room was mostly dark except for a couple of large spinning balls overhead, which created a retro psychedelic effect. Though dance music was being piped in from somewhere, there were no dancers visible. Occasionally a paunchy man would approach one of the long-legged women, mumble something, and the couple would vanish moments later behind one of the closed doors.
Every once in a while, a uniformed figure would wander through the room with glasses of champagne on a tray, and though I was eager for a drink, none ever reached my corner of the room. Either all the glasses were claimed before the tray reached me or the attendant, for whatever reason, never came my way..
So I was at once thirsty and uncomfortable, having difficulty breathing through the microscopic nose holes of my mask, when a woman, one of the few under six feet tall, this one wearing a Nicole Kidman mask sidled up to me.
“You’re the only one with a primate mask,” she said. “It can only mean that they want to single you out. I’d get out of here if I were you.”
I looked around me. It was true. I was the only one in the large room with a non-human mask. “Who’s they?” I asked.
“Take my arm,” she said. “It’ll look suspicious otherwise.”
I took her arm and went with her through one of the closed doors at the side and then I began to wonder about her reasons for concerning herself with me in the first place.
There was another couple in the room, the man in Tom Cruise mask sitting in an overstuffed chair, the woman in Margaret Thatcher mask kneeling in front of him. They took no notice of our arrival. I tried without much success to pretend they weren’t there.
She led me by the hand to a couch on the far side of the room and before I knew it, I was asleep with my head on her lap.
When I woke, or was awakened, a paunchy man with the demeanor of a carnival barker was looming over us.
“What are we going to do with you?” he said to the woman in the hushed voice of authority. “We need this man, you know that, for our ceremony which commences in four minutes time.”
I could feel my companion shiver under the weight of my head.
“Sir, he’s not fit,” she said. “He’s running a fever and he has an injured leg as you can see.”
“Does he?” he said. He poked my leg with the point of his shoe. “This is extremely awkward, given that our guests are expecting an appropriate subject. If he can’t stand on his own two feet, I suppose we’ll have to come up with a substitute. Know what I mean?”
“I can stand up,” I said, lifting my head just enough to see who I was dealing with—a small paunchy man wearing the mask of a demonic clown. “Would you get me my cane, which is on the floor behind you, I think.”
“Up you go, cowboy,” he said to me. “Let’s see you stand.”
I tried, I made the requisite effort, but it didn’t happen. I stood on one leg in precarious balance before folding up onto the paunchy man’s foot. He pulled his left shoe out from under me, making an odd, barely human sound in the process.
Moments after the paunchy man and my former companion left the room, two uniformed attendants appeared and lifted me from my resting place on the plush rug and, one holding my head, the other my feet, carried me from the room.
As they took me down the long corridor to the entrance, I could hear the paunchy man in the clown mask in the background, his voice amplified. “We have quite a turnout tonight for our burnt offerings sacrifice and I want to congratulate you all for being here. We are indeed fortunate to have a volunteer, a distinguished volunteer I might add for our service tonight. I’d like a well-deserved hand for….”
I never got the name. By this time, I was out the door in the moonless night, moving with bumpy dispatch, sweating from the cold, expecting to be dropped at any moment or rolled into the brush or whatever the grunting attendants had chosen for my final disposition.
I woke slumped behind the wheel of my rental car, which had an empty space where the CD player had once held sway. I didn’t allow it to matter. In most other ways, I was feeling improved. Waking up in opposition to the expectations you brought with you on going to sleep can be its own pleasure
Then it struck me that the woman at the Nameless Club, who had saved me from some unspeakable fate, had put herself in danger as a consequence.
So I drove off—the key was in the ignition—looking for the inconspicuous road that led to the estate in the woods the team of scientists had taken me to for celebratory recreation.
I had no way of knowing how much time had elapsed—my watch had stopped at midnight (or was it noon?)—but I was driven by a sense of urgency. I drove for several miles without spotting the off-road turn we had taken—there had been a yellow reflector as landmark—and so I assumed I had missed it and I went back the way I had come. And then back again the other way.
I tried two side roads that led nowhere or at least not anywhere I needed to go.
I stopped at a gas station and, after filling up, I asked the clerk in the neighboring convenience store if he knew of an estate in the vicinity hidden from the road by high walls.
“That’s funny,” the clerk said, rubbing his chin. “You be the second person this morning to come into the store with the same question.”
“And how did you answer him?” I asked.
“I didn’t get no chance to tell him anything,” he said, “because it was a woman not a man.” He smiled slyly. “Didn’t answer her either. Some men came in after her and she went off with them before I could say what I would have said.”
“Given the chance, what would you have said to her?”
“You’re kidding me, right?” he said. “I would have said I’m not from around here. You should ask my boss, but he’s not here at the moment.”
“When’s your boss coming back?”
“He’s not coming back,” he said, “because he’s already back, right? He’s already back but he’s in the back.”
“Well, I’d like to talk to your boss,” I said. “Does he ever make a personal appearance?”
“Yeah, no,” he said.
I was about to give up, about to turn and leave when it struck me to ask him to describe the woman who had preceded me in inquiring about the estate.
The woman he described, or half-described—he was interrupted by the appearance of a vaguely familiar paunchy man emerging from a door in the back—sounded, allowing for his impercipience and inarticulateness, as if she could have been Molly.
As the paunchy man approached the counter, the ache in my leg, which I hadn’t felt for awhile, returned.
I decided not to ask my question and moved toward the door.
“Hey,” the clerk said, “this is my boss. You have something you want to ask him, right?”
I was already by the door, had my back to the counter, when his voice stopped me. I turned slowly to get another look at the paunchy man, my mind exploding with possible questions, none of which seemed reasonable to ask. “It doesn’t really matter,” I say.
“I’m at your service,” the paunchy man said. “Speak up or as they say at weddings, forever hold your peace.”
I wondered if his remark was meant as a threat, which would have meant he had recognized me from the club. “I’m looking for a woman,” I said.
“We don’t have any in the store at the moment,” he said. “Leave me your number and if one comes in, I’ll give you a shout.”
“He wants to know how to get to the club,” the clerk said.
The paunchy man reached under the counter and I kept my eye on him as I backed out the door, noting what looked like a gun appearing in his hand , though it may only have been a trick of the light. I didn’t stay around for confirmation.
I noted it right away. Someone was in the driver’s seat of my rental car, the face obscured by the light glancing off the window. It was fortunate that I couldn’t run because I was three steps away when whoever it was turned the key in the ignition and the car with a crash of cymbals imploded in flame.
I limped away from the explosion, taking refuge in the woods, my movements obscured by the smoke. It struck me that once I was safely out of view, no doubt presumed dead, that a rare opportunity was mine for the taking. I could shed my old identity and start over without any of the negative baggage the old self dragged around.
At first, overwhelmed by choices, I couldn’t decide who or what I wanted to be, but then I thought why not a free-floating presence, a different identity for every occasion.
It was possible of course, everything was possible, that the paunchy man might not assume that I was the charred remains in the exploded car. So I continued on my way, perhaps increased my pace until it felt as though I couldn’t go any further.
My leg was hurting again as I dragged it along the winding path so I snapped a branch from a dying tree to use as a makeshift cane.
I must have traveled about 2 miles when I heard voices up ahead. From what I could make out, there were two men, perhaps boys, and a woman and they were arguing about whether to go on or turn back.
I overheard the following conversation before revealing myself.
“Look,” one of the boys was saying, “I’m not ashamed of being scared. If there’s something out there that doesn’t want us to go any further, I’m more than willing to take the hint.
“Oh, please!” the woman said.
“She’s right,” the other man said. “Just because we find a corpse in the woods, it doesn’t mean our lives are also at risk. Why should it? Besides, bad omens, dire warnings, scary moments are to be expected—isn’t that what the books on the subject say?--in an undertaking like ours.”
“Keep your hands where I can see them,” a voice behind me said. Someone had sneaked up on me from my blind side and was pressing a hard object that didn’t feel like a gun into my back.
“Take it easy,” I said. “I’m no danger to you.”
“So you say,” said the figure behind me. “Did Miriam, the dark-haired Miriam, send you? Don’t turn around if you know what’s good for you.”
He poked me again and I took my shot, gave his wrist a side of the hand chop, knocking whatever he was poking in my back (a green banana as it turned out) to the ground. His cry of pain brought the others in short order. They were older than I had imagined, in their early 20’s perhaps, though I’ve never been good at determining age.
Although they seemed wary of me, the apparent leader of the group, Kelp, invited me to their campfire site, even offered me a charred marshmallow as a gesture of hospitality.
They were students working on a group project, the one called Pill told me, but that was the extent of my information.
“And who might you be?” I was asked.
I told them my name was Bud and that I was in the woods foraging for unusual mushrooms.
“What do you do when you find such mushrooms?” the woman, who was referred to by the others as Ms. L, asked in her sassy way. “You don’t seem to have any specimens with you at the moment.”
“Oh I don’t pick them,” I said. “I see no reason to disturb the earth. I just make note of where they’ve been discovered and how they might be described.”
I actually knew virtually nothing about mushrooms, but this was the story that came to mind when Ms. L asked her question. What I was doing, as I saw it, was trying on a new identity.
They seemed to accept my story and I hung out with them for a while glad to have some company, and gradually, by dribs and drabs, they revealed the nature of their project.
They were students at a privileged counter-cultural college in New Hampshire that specialized in the study of unseen realities, or some such thing. This group of four were working together on a term paper for a class called The Dark Side of Human Behavior by investigating certain nasty inexplicable phenomena in the woods we had visited.
So far, all they had accomplished was the amassing of clues and omens, the latest and most disturbing of which was the corpse I had overheard them discussing.
I admired their courage, but I couldn’t help but wonder if there wasn’t something fool-hearty, even self-destructive in continuing their pursuit. I withheld whatever discouraging remarks came to mind, not wanting to undermine their grim enthusiasm.
Finally, I asked Kelp, the self-styled leader of the team, what they hoped to find at the end of their quest.
He took a deep breath before answering. “I don’t exactly know, he said carefully enunciating each word, “because as yet it has no name.”
He made a point of walking away from me before I could probe further. “And when you find the thing that has no name, what then?” I called after him.
Ms. L stole up to me and answered my question in a hushed voice. “Like you with your mushrooms,” she said, “we will not disturb the thing in any way. We are an investigating team. It is our job to locate and describe previously unknowable phenomena, not meddle with its destiny.”
“What if the thing, as you call it, doesn’t make the same distinctions?” I asked.
At first she brushed my question off with the back of her hand as being unworthy, but then she said, blushing in the faded light, “We are not without the ability to defend ourselves.”
I was curious as to what she meant, but not curious enough to go much further with this quixotic group and I announced, thanking them for their company, that the time had come to go my own way.
“I’m sorry,” Kelp said as I started to walk away. “I’m afraid we can’t let you go.”
“Why can’t you?” I asked, though I didn’t feel I needed permission to walk away.
“For one, you know too much,” he said.
“Hey, I know nothing,” I said. “I’ve been winging my way through life.” But it wasn’t knowledge of the world, or knowledge in general he was referring to. He meant—why hadn’t I seen this right away?--that I knew too much about their project.
While I was overstating my support of their venture, someone sneaked up behind me and conked me with what may have been a log or a club. When I woke up I found myself trussed from neck to toe by silken threads as though I were in a cocoon being carried along on a palette like a wounded soldier. So whether I liked it or not, I became a passive companion on their dangerous venture.
Check in with the Rail every month
for a new installment of Reruns Rezoomed.
Brooklyn native Jonathan Baumbach is the author of 3 collections of short stories and 11 novels including Reruns, B, Seperate Hours, Babble, Chez Charlotte & Emily and On the Way to My Father's Funeral. His stories have been anthologized in O.Henry Prize Stories, Great Pool Stories, Best American Stories, Full Court, All Our Secrets are the Same, Best of TriQuarterly among other.