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Hannah Flannery, a clumsy art history professor, has never thought of herself as very important. Certainly not important enough for an entourage of professional government men to interrupt her favorite class and request her immediate personage.

They won’t explain why they need Hannah or where they’re taking her. But the snubbed nose, egg-headed Chair of the History of Art and Architecture department has already rushed in to substitute for her class.

Little does Hannah know she’s going to have to follow clues on a late night escapade to a realization that with rock her world and give her life a new purpose.

Reflections Of You

By Valerie Brook

Copyright © 2019 by Valerie Brook. All rights reserved.

Published by Kickit Press/kickitpress.com

Cover and Layout Copyright © 2019 by Kickit Press

Cover Art: luizclas/pexels.com

This is a work of fiction. Name, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual events or locals or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction, in whole or in part in any form.

____________________

THEY CAME FOR THE POPULAR Professor Hannah Flannery in dark suits and mirrored sunglasses during the middle of teaching her favorite art history class at the university. 

Rembrant’s Self-Portrait with Saskia was up on the slide projector carousel. 

(The artist produced more self-portraits than any other artist before him, roughly seventy-five, and this particular etching was made in 1636. Notice his left hand holds a porte-crayon.)

The kindly, but snub-nosed and egg-head-balding, Chair of the History of Art and Architecture department had whooshed open the auditorium door and walked right up to Hannah at the podium, his round little body waggling, whispering importantly in her ear with pretzel and Coke breath, his hand secretly over the microphone, that there was an emergency and he’d take over her class now, she had his permission to go.

Hannah felt shocked. 

Her hand had fluttered to her chest and she’d accidentally glanced into one of the bright on-stage lights and been monetarily blinded. Then she saw the suits, standing professionally, one inside the threshold of the auditorium door, two outside.

The inside man nodded at her.

It was a slight, downward nod.  

His neck was rope thick.

Hannah started to walk toward the suits, then fumbled backward to noisily gather up her notes on the podium, and started to walk toward the suits again, and then fumbled backward to speak into the microphone and say, “Thank you class, Dr. Colostrum will take over now, but please remember oral presentations start next week.”

The microphone speaker whined rudely. 

Then Hannah stepped on the edge of her own ankle-length skirt and thought it might embarrassingly pull off, but she recovered. 

Finally, she reached the inside man, and he gently reached out and collected her elbow in his lion’s paw of a hand.

“Is my Michael okay?” Hannah whispered. “Has something happened?”

“Please step this way, Mrs. Flannery.”

The direction was into the hallway, but she asked again, “Is Michael okay, I must know.”

She really did need to know because this kind of situation had never happened to her before. Hannah Flannery was mousy, and notoriously clumsy, and had a beautiful laugh that tumbled through a room like musical chimes; but she wasn’t “important”.

She was also a single mother with a seventeen-year-old son in his senior year in high school, and his well-being had always been paramount, always would be.

“No, ma’am,” the man with the rope neck said. “This is regarding another matter.”

Relief flooded her chest. And then it tightened right back up again.

“What matter could this be?”

But they led her officially outside onto the interconnected labyrinth of campus sidewalks, where the lustrous, bright green canopy of oak leaves fluttered in the warm September afternoon, the air smelled smokey and stagnant, and other students milled about with brightly colored backpacks but didn’t pay too much attention to her entourage.

It was finals week coming up; they were preoccupied.

Rope Neck opened the rear passenger door of a giant black Chevy Yukon.

Engine running at the curb, parked in emergency red, the vehicle looked like it had the shoulders of a prehistoric bison on steroids. The kind of tinted-window vehicle that Hannah only saw on TV, with a professional driver to drive the important people around, and armed bodyguards, and whatnot. 

A bit out of her class range.

She often struggled to pay her mortgage. 

When Hannah climbed onto the  supple leather seat, with assistance, (her teaching notes bunched onto her lap and almost spilling), Rope Neck slid in right beside her and Hannah was sandwiched between the monstrous thighs of two robust men. 

It was thrilling for a moment, in a dangerous spy-novel way, also like looking at the Fireman’s Annual Calendar where they’ve all got their shirts off, and letting your mind wander in a bedroom way, because—nice.

But when the Yukon accelerated, and the campus streaked by beyond the windows as if Hannah had been vacuum sealed away from her familiar world, the silly thrill faded into fear.

She felt a thin sheen of sweat release under her armpits.

“Someone please tell me what’s going on.”

Hannah was shocked when a middle-aged woman with thin lips and powerful, on-target brown eyes peered around from the front passenger’s seat.

(Shocked somehow about the woman part, not that someone was there. Hannah was certainly not a postfeminist, and she was tenured; but she still always felt she was living in a man’s world.) 

“Professor Flannery, please forgive me. I did decide this was the best way to collect you, and I came along”—this was spoken as if she’d gone far out of her way—“but I’m terribly sorry I’m not authorized to speak freely to you until we’ve entered our next location. Is that agreeable? Just a quick ten minute jaunt.”

Hannah nodded, and said, “I suppose so?”

The middle-aged woman smiled, as if saying, of course it is; and then turned away, disappearing again. The lines of crows feet around her eyes had deepened, darkened in that last second of contact; so that she’d given Hannah a wise and states-womanly air of influence.

Or that of a liar.

Hannah looked out the window.

The air in the Yukon started to get stale, being shared by too many people.

* * *

The Yukon entered a city parking rise and kept going down into the concrete structure, all the parking spaces full of car-butts, looping and looping down. 

Hannah kept pinching her teaching papers; some haphazardly collected in the bulging mouth of a plastic binder, some loosely collected on top. She should organize them, but she couldn’t let go.

The middle-aged woman peered around her front seat again. “Professor Flannery, we’re going to need you to wear these simple sunglasses for a few minutes, would that be acceptable.” It wasn’t a question. Her voice was gravel and back-room deals.

“Oh,” Hannah said. 

The middle-aged woman extended the normal-looking black sunglasses in a hand with a gold wedding ring and a big rock. 

“Um, and did you introduce yourself?” The sunglasses thing made Hannah suddenly realized she was so off-balance, so ignorant of her true situation, that she needed to make an assertion.

Needed to defend herself.

“Senator Matrice Glenhaven, out of the state of Texas,” the middle-aged woman replied, understanding.

Hannah didn’t say, what is a senator out of Texas doing in Minnesota. Hannah didn’t recognize her. She put the sunglasses on and was blinded. It must have had some kind of optical technology. 

Her vision just went black.

The modern incognito blindfold.

There was a slight pressure on her elbows, both the bodyguards; a light but strong finger near her ulnar nerve.

She only knew because that’s your biologically located, horrendous explosion of a pain-bomb, funny bone; which is not so funny.

Oh, the things a professional could do to that nerve. (So she had learned from her thriller novel days.)

Breathtaking.

They drove a bit further; turning, waiting, descending, parked. Doors opened. Slammed shut. Hannah clenched her notebook like the railing on the edge of a cliff. She thought her armpits might be showing wetly through her pale-blue puff sleeve blouse. She wished she didn’t have a skirt on and black ballet flats.

Needed cargos with reinforced knees and a leather belt. Hiking boots with double-knotted laces.

Her pocket knife that cuts slices of sour crab apples to eat from the backyard. Her cell phone. My god, her phone was still on the podium. 

Someone removed her glasses. One of her long brown hairs pulled and sent an irrational stab of pain into her scalp.

“Your not in Kansas anymore, honey.”

This sentence confused Hannah as she followed the bodyguards out of the vehicle, but then she realized Senator Glenhaven was being facetious.

“I suppose you’re not in Texas, then.”

This got a barked-out laugh from the senator, and Hannah felt good about herself for a second, like she could keep up.

“We’re just about there, Professor.”

The air down here was a cold Egyptian pharaoh’s tomb. There was a faint smell of diesel exhaust. Sounds had a deep, entrenched echo. They were parked alone right up to a silver elevator, concrete walls close in all around, and the elevator doors were opening automatically.

Everyone got in. They all stared at the floor levels descending on the digital readout. It said SL5 when they stopped. My God, they must be way lower than the city sewers by now.

But what did she know about sewers.

The senator stood shoulder to shoulder with Hannah, but Hannah was taller. The stateswoman wore a gray business suit, soft flowing curves and sharp, crisp folds.

She looked Presidential, quite frankly.

Down a hallway and now the senator led Hannah into a mostly empty room, except the decor looked like it could have been from the 1970s. Table, chairs, file cabinet. Unabashedly bright, in your face, and discordant.

The color pumpkin immediately came to mind.

And well-worn enough to be the genuine artifacts.

“Feel free to set your possessions here, on this table, they’ll be waiting for you when you leave.”

That perked Hannah up, because she would be leaving. She plunked her notebook down. Some errant papers caught air and sailed to the floor.

They were handed back neatly to her as a chair was pulled out and she slowly sat down. Her chair had no cushion.

“When will that be, Senator,” Hannah asked politely. Now she thought she might be sweating along the curve of her underwear, you know, that heavy crease that digs in.

The senator cut her eyes up at Hannah. She shrugged. “Whenever you’re done, I suppose.” Glenhaven sat down at the business end of the desk. Her olive green chair puffed down and a wheel squealed. Must be an old cushion in there. 

Glenhaven pulled out a drawer, producing a single piece of paper. At the top, the official stamped seal of the United States Department Of Homeland Security was emboldened in gold.

“This is a non-disclosure agreement. It’s standard. Please sign.”

As Hannah read the document, she realized that she’d not been instructed to read what she was supposed to sign. That made her read it like a last will and testament.

“So I can never talk about what happens next, ever.”

“Nope.”

“So this is a legally enforceable contract.”

“Yes.”

Hannah looked up. The senator suddenly looked older, exhausted. Her makeup looked painted on. “I’ve signed mine, honey. I’ve signed many. What do you want to be in life, Hannah? Playing the game, or watching it from the cheap seats?” 

“At the bottom of the paper here, it says ‘fatal enforcement’”—Hannah’s voice broke off—“I just, no. I have a child.”

“We all have kids. We’re running late, here, Professor.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me.”

“Do I look kiddingly?”

“I don’t want to die.”

“Do I look like I’m about to die?”

“How do I know you’ve really signed one?”

The senator nodded to the men behind Hannah, and that’s when she realized the three ballbusters were still standing there. Fuck.

They were ghosts when they wanted to be.

Her cell phone was produced and placed in front of her. On the screen, a video played, and Hannah’s sweet, teenage son Michael’s face was on the screen. He set his phone down, but the angle was still catching his silent actions.

It might have been a minute that passed and nothing but Hannah’s eyes moved, watching.

The room stayed totally silent. 

To let her process things.

Finally, Hannah concluded, due to Michael’s exact environment and several other clues, that this was a live feed through his phone’s front camera, and he had no idea he was being recorded.

We all have kids.

So this is what it was like to be a powerful woman in a man’s world. Well, no one had ever called Hannah stupid. She was tenured, after all.

She needed her fucking dirty-knees rose-gardening pants on.

“I’m not signing.”

The Senator shrugged. “Neither did I.” She reached into the same drawer and produced Hannah’s copy of her NDA, signed; with Hannah’s exact signature. 

In real ink.

Hannah felt relief to not be complicit. 

She could never prove she’d never actually agreed, never signed. She understood the threat being made to her son’s life was real. And she could still hold her head up, for now. 

“I kinda figured out this part. That it’s as much of a psych-game, as anything.”

Glenhaven barked out her laugh. 

“You’re right, for whatever that means. It doesn’t mean anything down here. What you’re about to see is going to disturb you for the rest of your life, Professor.”

* * *

Hannah was led by the three bodyguards down many hallways. Occasionally, she felt their fingertips on her ulnar nerve.

The Senator, well; she stayed at the desk. The last look she gave to Hannah was blank.

What does a blank face mean?

That must be the point.

Keep you guessing.

The hallways were smooth white material. Sterile. The white doors on the sides were all closed, but you could see a digital gray screen for the doorknob, just plain gray; maybe for palm prints?

Everything looked like a polished plastic colon. And her entourage was the dark constipated shit walking down the tube.

(By-the-way, nothing else seemed to be stuck in the seventies. Taxpayer money for renovations, likely, but they overlooked one room?)

The government was batshit weird.

Finally, the final door. 

Rope Neck put his palm on the reader. The door slid into the wall like Star Trek, without the door sound.

Now the decor transitioned into concrete-and-steel military bunker. Rows of pipes overhead leading out of sight, metal drains in the floor, yellow-and-black painted warning areas on the ground. Olive green machine cases with rapid lights blinking, parked big-wheeled electric golf cart-type cars, and a general low-toned hum.

Something smelled like burnt rubber.

The air was decidedly colder, meaner.

The bodyguards put Hannah in the bench seat of an electric cart and they zipped along a large hallway where an army tank could have steered and not scraped the sides. She just needed a soundtrack to play in this new version of her life where she was suddenly the protagonist in her own thriller.

They brought her to another door with armed guards in fatigues who held machine guns. Was this the final door? Or would they just keep travelling down the intestines of this secret and never get shit anywhere.

“Professor Flannery, please step through here,” Rope Neck said. The sudden use of English started Hannah. He was standing behind her shoulder.

“Okay,” she said, turning around. An enormous tan-colored blast door was swinging open like it weighed nothing. It must have been twenty feet thick. What will be behind here?

A snaking kind of claustrophobia was starting to wrap and tighten around her ribs as she stepped through the threshold. 

Whatever Hannah was being brought to see, it had the utmost security.

Now she was in a smaller laboratory and a warm gust of air whispered over her face, making her hair tickle her cheeks. Banks of sophisticated computers blinked on one side of the room, on the other a countertop held various glass beakers, professional materials, and a sink, and a couple of scientists in white lab coats worked at stations. 

The ceiling was low, the lights were bluish, and Hannah thought she’d seen a place just like this in one of her son’s creepy end-of-world shooter games.

(High-end video games, as Hannah had argued in her most recent published article, are truly an important form of artistic expression, where the player becomes an active participant in the emergence of the art form itself. So fascinating!)

A scruffy-bearded, white-haired, barrel-chested scientist with a prosthetic hand came up to Hannah, with his arms outstretched, clasping both of her hands in one set of bone-dry fingers, and another set of cold, but soft, synthetic finger pads. 

He had the air of being The Man In Charge.

“My dear Professor, thank you so much for the trouble of coming down here, and during such a busy part of your day,” he said with a toothy and most exuberant smile. She thought she saw something dark in-between one of his back teeth. “I have been awaiting the gift of your presence and am most pleased you have finally arrived. May I get you anything to drink?” 

Hannah was taken aback. 

Why was he so friendly, did she know him? What on earth would she ever want to drink down here?

“Oh no, thank you,” she stammered, thinking to explain how her presence was rather involuntary, but deciding that was a moot point, “I guess I’m not exactly sure where I am or why.”

The lead scientist released one of her hands, but her other hand stayed awkwardly clamped in his robotic grip.

“Oh, good God,” he said. “This malfunction has been happening all morning. I have fourteen selectable articulating grip patterns but the microprocesser in the middle finger is, well, giving us the proverbial finger.”

He pried his robo-hand off and Hannah couldn’t help but laugh at the absurdities of her whole day. He had an infectious energy in a mad scientist way.

He gave her a wide grin. “Come with me while I explain what you need to know.”

Hannah followed him to a private section of the lab where the blue lights were dimmer, and they sat at a large table, the other half strewn with papers and drawings and graphs. She didn’t have time to look at them because she was earnestly watching him like a hawk.

That’s when she realized he’d not introduced himself. 

“I’ve asked that you be included in my research, because, well—frankly, not because you are the curator of the art gallery at the University, nor because you are a photographer and collagist of international renown.”

“Oh,” Hannah said. “I’m not sure I follow. What other qualifications do I—?”

He cut her off“—I have no other way to say this than to just say it outright, but we—the government—have come into possession of some otherworldly artifacts, as well as an accompanying; Intelligence.”

Here, he paused, and his brilliant blue eyes cut up at her. “The Intelligence is asking specifically for you. So you are being provided.”

Hannah’s eyes felt dry. Like she couldn’t blink enough to moisturize them.

There was an awkward silence.

Hannah thought about things.

“Are we avoiding the word extraterrestrial, here, in the same way you might be avoiding your own introduction?”

“Oh my, not in the same way,” the lead scientist said with a sideways grin. Then he leaned back in his stiff metal chair, and then righted himself again, because it must have been uncomfortable.

Now, the lead man chose to lean forward on his elbows, moving in on her. Some of his affable charm bled away through the intensity and eagerness in his overly blue eyes, and Hannah thought: He’s complicit with something unethical. He may even be dark.

The hairs on the back of her neck rose up.

Her lips tasted salty.

“Down that hallway is a door.” Robo Hand pointed with his amazing piece of malfunctioning technology. Hannah looked where he pointed. It was a short, white tube-hallway, just like the other polished plastic tube-hallways she’d already walked through. Cameras lined the ceiling, pointing toward the final door like an arsenal of video eyes.

Yes, at last, this truly must be the final door.

If a guillotine chopped her head off when she walked through it’d be a fine end to this day. 

“Go ahead, Professor. We will be watching. Come back out when you are ready.”

* * *

Hannah approached the door and it unlocked with an industrial electric-cattle-prod snap, receding quietly into the wall. 

Hannah continued cautiously toward the next room and whatever all this trouble was about. 

When she crossed the threshold, the door closed quietly behind her, then it bolted down itself like a federal prison sentence. Goosebumps on the nape of her neck, her knees weak.

The sterile air shivered. 

Isopropyl alcohol had recently been spritzed.

The white square-box room was empty but for a black table and two black folding chairs, and a human being sitting at the table, staring right at her.

The human being sitting at the table was Hannah.

* * *

Hannah’s throat clucked.

The extraterrestrial person was wearing exactly what Hannah was wearing, the exact outfit she’d snagged out of her own closet this morning. Or maybe the extraterrestrial was really a biological clone. Maybe it was a haptic hologram and Hannah had been conscripted into some kind of evil University social sciences experiment.

Hannah embarrassingly thought: I’m almost pretty. Then, she thought, I think I’m fainting.

Indeed, the room blackened up, and Hannah slid, sweat-stained blouse and rumpled skirt and all, right down the surface of the white door like it was a slick waterslide.

She plopped onto her butt. 

A sharp pain shot up her tailbone.

“Oh dear.” The other person-looking thing spoke from the table and had Hannah’s same-sounding soft voice.

“I am an alien,” the extraterrestrial said. “It’s short and to the point. Though I’m terribly sorry to distress you with this.”

Hannah’s rollercoaster dizziness subsided a bit and she became more certain she was not going to pee herself. 

“Oh, I see.”

“I would approach to help you up, but I’m concerned my appearance is having an adverse effect on you. So please, only come sit with me when you feel up to it. If you don’t mind.”

“Oh.” Hannah nodded agreeably. “I don’t mind.”

Her life had just gone from mostly normal to insane.

She was in a funky state of shock.

She was hyperventilating like a racehorse; so she tried to slow her breath down.

She hadn’t watched enough Twilight Zone reruns to prepare mentally for this, though the show was queued up to stream on weekends, accompanied by a giant bowl of her famous jalapeno popcorn. 

Hannah stood shakily up, respectfully straightened her skirt, and then sat next to herself, the extraterrestrial, or just alien for short.

They both looked awkwardly at each other across the table. They both had their hands interlaced in front of them.

“So, I think you should start?” Hannah said.

“Yes, of course,” the alien acknowledged. “Except, unfortunately I can’t really tell you the things you might most desire to know.” The alien glanced up at the ceiling where there were at least five cameras recessed and blinking with red lights. “Because they’re analyzing, of course. But they’re a few things we can discuss.”

“Yes, please.”

“I crashed my spaceship into a Catholic chuch three days ago. Fortunately, there wasn’t a service going on at the time.”

“Indeed.”

“I was not able to escape military capture.”

“No, most certainly not.”

“So, we are a photographer and collagist?”

Hannah was taken aback by the sudden question. The misuse of the plural pronoun. “That is correct. I have been recognized internationally for my work.” Hannah paused, unsure what was coming next.

The alien nodded emphatically. “Then, these are the first clues.”

“Oh?”

“Yes. And so I shall see you again, later. I must not speak again, until I see you, later.”

Hannah blinked. Her eyelids were so dry they scratched across her eyeballs.

She felt bizarre. 

She felt so bizarre that the bizarre feeling was looping back into normal. Did that make sense? Can you feel so confused that you no longer feel the confusion?  

“Okay, then. I will try to understand.” 

And Hannah had never wanted to get out of somewhere as bad as right now.

* * *

Rope Neck dropped Hannah back at her car in the parking lot at the university. He explained they would be back to get her when she was needed.

She stood in her ballet flats back on top of planet Earth and yet had never felt so removed from her living reality.

Her own body.

She kept wringing her hands.

The twilight sky had been cut open with a butcher knife and bled magenta and orange onto every mirrored surface.

The Senator was right, Hannah was disturbed. She would never be the same.

Hannah drove home, but her face had no expression, so she felt like a robot driver. She started to realize this blankness was because there was a brewing anger underneath her skin. 

A dangerous anger.

The kind that will heat up and heat up until it gets out.

But she needed to get applesauce pork chops on the stove for Michael; whom she’d been promised, by the government, had not been touched.

Thank God.

And there would be no reason for him to be. Hannah was going to comply with what she was asked to do, that was a no-brainer. No other choice made sense.

She wasn’t stupid.

In the passenger seat sat two binders. 

When she cornered, the plastic materials hissed over the top of each other. One was full of her college teaching notes and student handouts. The other was new.

All those strewn-about papers and drawings and graphs that had been on the lead scientists table—he had given these to Hannah to take home and study.

Also, the kindly government had also compiled a bibliographical collection of Hannah’s collagist work, on high resolution photo paper, to use as clues. 

It was obvious they’d accessed her home computer and art files; some of these materials she’d never released.

This was very disturbing; however, since the day as a whole was so disturbing overall, the privacy violation was just a drop in the bucket.

Her task: find out what the alien is up to, what it wants, why it looks like you. Why it requested you. Why today was the first time it has ever spoken aloud, to anyone; to you. 

(And, by the way, you work for us now.)

They’d been very clear about surveillance. 

Facial recognition inside all the traffic cameras, even capable of tracking her license plate from street to street. Any device that used wifi, had a microphone or camera, was tracking her, could even read her lips.

Plus, other spy stuff they didn’t need to explain, in an increasingly “smart” world eyeing our every movement. 

We’ll be watching you.

Hannah didn’t know why the encroaching invasion of spy technology didn’t bother her more, didn’t bother everyone more. Maybe because this was the world she’d growingly come to expect. A world getting quietly darker, quietly more sinister, as if it were all a natural progression instead of a rather horrible plan. A cause to stand up and fight.

But she was tenured.

She knew how to be a good girl.

And follow the rules.

* * *

Midnight.

Pouring over her scattered art collection on her gigantic pine table, with a bottle of red Clos Siguier wine. From France. Okay, the second bottle.

What is she even looking for? 

What alien clue is she suppose to find? 

Oh, my God, aliens exist.

Okay, Hannah. Focus. So what, that aliens exist, and crash their spaceships into Catholic churches. And look identically like you.

Focus.

For Michael.

Stay alive.

Ostensibly, as a collagist, her preferred medium engaged existing paper materials to assign a new context to that self-same material in order to create a brand new synthesis. Because it wasn’t about her individual photographs of bright colors, textures, shapes and design; it was how she cut them and glued them all back together.

Gestalt: The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Or whatever.

She was getting drunk.

* * *

Two nervous days passed. 

Michael, normal and happy and no signs of anything.

But while he slept in his room at night, until the wee hours of the nights turning into morning, and on private breaks in her office, and even in the restroom sitting on the toilet, Hannah poured over her own artwork looking for clues.

But nothing.

She was hungover.

And felt stupid.

Rope Neck man appeared again in the doorway at the end of her favorite art history class in the auditorium. Hannah gathered her podium paperwork, spilling it all out again onto the slick hardwood floor while the class released. So, several kindly students helped her gather it all up with the bright eyes of youth and ignorance.

Hannah got into the Yukon.

No talk at all.

Hannah got a real good sense of how a souped-up engine sounds to drive when you are important and fast and everyone else is in the way.

Back down a mile under the earth, with herself in double, at the same table.

* * *

The alien looked haggard. 

Hannah thought: Oh my God, my eyes really are the windows into my own soul. And, she also thought: This person is not me. But they are a good person.

“How have, they—how has it been going here?” Hannah said.

The alien had sad eyes.

“I can not figure out your clue. I’m so sorry.”

“That’s okay,” the alien said.

Hannah felt a surge of compassion for this mysterious being.

The alien added, “I do think you can figure it out.”

“Is there another clue?”

“I’m starting to forget my clues, or why I had them.”

Hannah didn’t know why she did it, but she reached for herself, to grasp her own hands for hope. They were friendly and warm. They were not her own. “What more can you tell me, please?”

“That night. Go back there.” 

And then the alien collapsed her forehead onto the top of their holding hands, like she was dying desperate. A magnificently bright spiritual light began to emanate from them both, from their hands together on the table; growing larger, filling the room. Filling Hannah with incredible bliss.

This was no fluorescent bulb.

This was not voltage from a wall socket.

This was what future humans on Earth could do; if they just would.

Feelings so pure and filled with wonder encapsulated Hannah, began to ripple through her; began to open her up with waves of wonder—

—and then a horribly loud alarm exploded, clanging her brain, and Rope Neck snatched Hannah by the neck and dragged her away, choking, kicking, down the white tube hallway and her garden boots dragging, and she was screaming now, a wild hyena jungle sound, and now a series of hidden steel barricades slammed down out of the ceiling and sealed the alien in a spectacular, multilayered prison.

Fuck off, ugly Rope Neck. I will never look at another Fireman’s Annual Calendar.

I will burn the pages.

* * *

Midnight again, back at home. 

Drinking red wine.

Michael warm and safe; innocent. At least for now, and sleeping under Grandma’s wool covers. Hannah’d made homemade pepperoni pizza, dripping with fresh mozzarella cheese, and watched him play God Of War, cheering him on.

Yes! Great attack! Wow!

Now: all her photographic materials were strewn around the giant pine tabletop in her own underground.

The alien had said, ‘That night, go back there.’

Something kept tickling the back of her mind.

Well, Hannah was old enough to have a bazillion nights at her disposal, so what night was the important one? Then, she realized what she’d last been photographing with her Nikon D5 DSLR.

The night sky.

Oh, my God, had the bloody lunar eclipse had been the same night as the alien’s spaceship crash?

None of those new shots were out of the camera yet. She’d never processed it. Finals had been looming and she’d just pushed the camera, still on its tripod, into the big bookcase alcove by the sliding glass door by the deck. She’d walked by it now, well; a bazillion times.

Bingo.

Hannah raced upstairs and tripped on a stair and fell up, smacking her chin hard. She lay there feeling like she’d broken her neck. Her chin was raising up into a lump. Who falls up the stairs? Was she turning into an alcoholic? She went back downstairs and dumped the fifth night of wine down her artists’ sink.

She’d never been a good drinker. It was getting kinda tiresome, anyway.

She retrieved her camera from the tripod and safely retraced her way back down into her studio. Time to hook the memory card up to the computer and make the prints.

That took an hour. 

Some spectacular time-lapsed shots. But no matter how she laid the stunning lunar photos out on the table, turned the photos upside down, scoured them with a magnifying glass to see if she’d accidentally caught an image of the spaceship before it crashed; she got nothing.

Nothing.

* * *

Hannah was almost asleep when she sat straight up in bed.

That night, go back there.

Hannah gripped her head and almost screamed; not quite in frustration, not quite in relief. But more over the fact she didn’t want to leave Michael sleeping alone in the house, even though he was quite old enough, not to mention the fact he was an iron sleeper and would never know she was gone. 

The first thing she was going to do tomorrow morning was buy a really huge guard dog. 

Five dogs.

She snatched her smart phone off the bedside table and did a Google search propped up on her elbows. She did not type into the search bar: Hello Secret Government People, I Know You’re Monitoring My Searches.

There were two Catholic churches that had been in the local news over the last few weeks. Only one had a section being renovated after “water damage”—but it was in a safe part of the city and still open 24/7.

Hannah snatched up her car keys, snatched up her bibliographic notebook, scrawled a note for Michael on the kitchen counter, and left the lights on in case he woke. She almost peeled out of her own driveway like a stockcar racer, and it was only after she sped off that she realized she was wearing her pink flannel pajama pants and button-top.

Mocassin slippers.

Oh well.

She blew the heater on full blast.

Church was a forgiving place, right?

It took twenty-five minutes to get there in the dead of the night, and by that time she was burning up hot. Not many people or cars were moving around. Hannah parked right in front of the church and could see where huge blue tarps and scaffolding might be hiding where the spaceship had crashed. 

Had the alien vehicle been about the size of a car? There’s no reason it had to be gigantic. Maybe it was an economy spaceship.

Hannah tucked her notebook under her arm like a football and ran up the concrete front steps, the night air swirling, the faint aroma of fast food French fries and cold fog all around her.

The front doors were heavy wood, so smooth and soft after all the praying hands that had pushed through them over the years. The church glowed with soft nighttime lights, welcoming in those who needed sanctuary. Hannah was not religious, but when she entered the foyer, she said a little prayer under her breath.

Just one word.

Please.

The Church, through the ages, had been a patron of the arts and commissioned some of the most beautiful artistic works of all time. Not that Hannah would EVER in a million years compare herself to, let’s say, Michelangelo (the thought made her almost laugh hysterically); however, if Hannah had remembered correctly, a representative of this church had purchased one of her contemporary collages for an exhibition a year ago. 

She didn’t always keep the greatest records. 

One of her flaws.

Hannah padded around, quietly feeling like an invader. If she was starring in her own movie, it would be titled, The Spy Who Wore Pink Pajamas.

She found the hallway displaying local artists on either sides of the walls and hurried down it, searching for her own collage, whipping around a corner and running smack into a solid man.

They both jolted in a blur, like quantum entanglement, and all of Hannah’s photographs spilled in a mess on the floor.

“Oh dear,” the stranger said, “Are you okay? I’m so very sorry.”

“Oh no, it’s absolutely my fault,” Hannah said, bending down immediately to collect everything up. She couldn’t be bothered with small talk right now.

The gentleman helped her clean up. He handed over his small pile, and said, “It’s just a little accident.”

The gentleman’s friendly warm fingers lightly touched Hannah, fingers that reminded her of someone else she had recently met.

Hannah was squat on the tiled floor, one hand on the ground to balance her. So was he. She raised her eyes inquisitively to truly look at him for the first time.

The man had stylish, spiky black hair and thick rimmed glasses and he wore wore a waistcoat over a collared shirt with jeans and a tie.

“I believe this is your specific portrait.” He pointed up and Hannah followed his gaze. “And this next portrait, for this watercolor over here, is mine. I believe an artist would be most grateful to switch places with you, just to be you for an hour. Just to trade places. It would be so freeing.”

He stood to leave.

Oh yes, finally, there it was, the collage she had previously sold, titled: Our Lady Of Peace And Love. Underneath each framed piece on the wall was a little placard with a portrait of the “local artist”.

Hannah realized she had worn her same long skirt and pale-blue puff sleeve blouse that day.

And now it hit her.

All the clues.

She knew why the alien had shape-shifted into HER. Because the alien had been standing RIGHT here, after the crash, probably with only minutes to think of what to do, with the government’s surveillance machine on red alert and barreling down.

A warm flood of emotion drained through Hannah’s body.

Well, the economy spaceship had been a two-seater, hadn’t it.

She ran after him but he was gone. 

It was too dangerous to talk again, anyway. But it wasn’t too dangerous to grin like a baboon. She’d just put all the clues together.

When Hannah left the church, Rope Neck was eyeing her from across the street.

She waved.

* * *

Hannah wore the same outfit the next day—after washing out the sweat stains and odor—the same outfit she’d been wearing in her “local artist” portrait, the same outfit she’d been wearing the first day she’d met Rope Neck.

She really needed to shop more.

When Rope Neck showed up at the University, Hannah was ready, her stack of loose photographs in hand.

It wasn’t going to be that hard to clumsily spill her photographs over the floor in front of her double, and then switch places because they looked identical, so the alien could escape and find her partner and go home.

(Just an hour, that’s what he’d said in the Catholic church. Hannah felt certain she could sit silently for an hour and she’d strapped on a wristwatch.)

The tricky part was going to be convincing the Senator not to be a bitch about it.

But Hannah had set a social media time delay to post her NDA contract online, including a complete description of her encounters with the alien, naming all names, describing everything.

Sure, she was going to get totally fired. 

She would only sound crazy.

But it was insurance for Michael so the government couldn’t hurt them.

Anyway, she was really done being a good little tenured girl.

Now that she viscerally knew there were real extraterrestrials, now that she’d had the “bright light” spiritual moment, now that humanity was factually not alone on Earth—how could Hannah just keep going along with a society she knew was going dark, going bad?

Life held bigger things for her now.

She wanted the freedom to find out what.

Copyright © 2019 by Valerie Brook. All rights reserved.

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