|Someone may overhear you
talking about seeing a UFO.
The pounding on the door had continued for the better part of an hour, insistent, unrelenting, maddening. But Ian Thompson knew better than to answer it. He pushed his fists harder against his ears, grinding flesh and cartilage to his skull. He was grateful for the pain, hoped it would help distract him from the pounding for at least a few moments. But he knew it wouldn't.
"Go away, damn you!" Ian tried to shout, but the words came out as little more than a mewling plea. "Leave me alone!"
If anything, the pounding became more intense.
A sob. "Please, God." But he knew there was no use appealing to God. No use at all.
Two weeks earlier, Ian sat across a table from his ex-wife in a small downtown restaurant, having lunch. They did this once every month or so, painful and irritating as it sometimes was, in order to discuss Bobby, their only child. Divorced they might be, and not exactly friends, but they were committed to being the best parents possible under the circumstances.
Janice seemed satisfied with her oriental chicken salad, but Ian's hamburger was too well done. However, he knew better than to say anything. Janice hated it when he complained, and he didn't feel like listening to her sniping today. So he choked down his burger and tried not to make a face while she talked.
"Bobby got a B+ on his science test last week."
"Great," Ian mumbled through a mouthful of dry ground beef.
Janice frowned. "Something wrong?"
Damn! He must've let his disgust at the charred, lukewarm burger show on his face. His complaining about little things was one of the many reasons Janice had cited for wanting, no, needing to divorce him. He refused to tell her the truth about the burger and get her started on how critical he was. So instead, he swallowed and said, "I was just thinking about something that happened the other night."
"Oh?" An arched eyebrow. Even after being divorced for three years, though it had been her idea, Janice was still the jealous type.
"It was nothing like that. I had to work late at the bank, and by the time I left, it was almost nine o'clock. On the way home, I saw --" he paused for dramatic effect. "Something." He emphasized the word to make the capital "S" clear.
Janice smiled. "You did, did you?" Despite her skeptical tone, Ian knew she was intrigued. One of her secret vices was reading the occasional supermarket tabloid, the trashier and more outlandish, the better.
"I saw it through the driver's side window. A white light, kind of like a star, but bigger, and with a small blinking red light behind. And it was moving. As I watched, it seemed to keep pace with me. It slowed when I slowed, sped up when I sped up."
Janice leaned forward, salad forgotten, her eyes wide with interest.
"I was all alone on the highway. At least, I didn't see any other cars around. And then the light got bigger, and I realized it was coming closer . . . and closer . . ."
"And then what happened?" A whisper, almost breathless. Ian grinned. "Then I passed the airport exit sign."
It took her a moment, but then Janice scowled and swatted him on the arm. "You rat! It was an airplane!"
He laughed. "Fished you in!"
Janice smiled ruefully and shook her head. "Just for that, you're picking up the tab."
They finished their meal and their conversation about Bobby, kissed each other on the cheek for form's sake more than anything else, and said goodbye for another month. Janice departed and Ian took the check up to the counter and handed it to a pretty young brunette who couldn't have been more than twenty. As she rang up the total, Ian was uncomfortably aware of the extra ten pounds he carried around his middle, but he wasn't foolish enough to try to pretend it didn't exist by sucking his stomach in. At thirty-six he was too old for such games.
The brunette, who as near as he could tell wasn't even aware that he existed, let alone needed to lose weight, took his debit card, scanned it, then handed it back. While they both waited for the receipt to print out, Ian became aware of someone standing behind him.
"You should not have said anything." The voice had a faint accent, one Ian couldn't place.
He turned to face the speaker, intending to say, "Excuse me?" but the words died in his throat. The man was tall, thin, and possessed of vaguely Asian features. His eyes were a bright, piercing blue which almost seemed to shine with their own internal light. But all of this didn't bother Ian so much as what the man was wearing. He was garbed entirely in black from head to toe. Black shoes, socks, pants, tie, suit jacket -- even his shirt was black. And at his side, the man held a black hat, and draped over his other arm, a black rain coat, despite the fact that it was a sunny day out.
"You should not have said anything," the man repeated. "You should not have drawn attention to yourself." The words had an odd cadence to them, as if English were not his native language.
Ian didn't wait for his receipt. He turned away from the man and hurried for the door, was nearly running by the time he got there. He burst out onto the sidewalk and stood, momentarily dazzled by sunshine. Then he headed for the parking lot and his car, determined to put as much distance between himself and the restaurant as possible.
No, not the restaurant, but rather the man inside it.
The Man in Black.
When Ian was twelve, he read a book called The UFO Prophecies. He was in the middle of a summer-long phase of devouring books that promised "MODERN MYSTERIES REVEALED!" He'd taken out every book the local library had on such esoterica as the Loch Ness monster and Bigfoot and was now into UFO's. He'd enjoyed the other books, liked looking at the sketches and grainy, out-of-focus pictures, peering at them closely and wondering if they were real.
But interesting as they had been, Nessie and Bigfoot hadn't really been very scary. Scotland was far too removed from Southern Ohio, and the Pacific Northwest seemed just as far and foreign to him. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn't imagine running into a lake monster or hirsute giant in his backyard.
But a UFO could land in the backyard, or the front yard, or just hover over the house while little gray men slid down a beam of light and passed through the walls of his bedroom to steal him away and perform all sorts of gross medical tests on him.
Still, even that wasn't so scary. Ian had seen plenty of TV shows and movies about aliens and spaceships. And a lot of the time the spacemen were nice.
But this latest book, The UFO Prophecies, was different. It focused not so much on UFO's themselves but rather what followed in the wake of their sightings: the Men in Black.
They appeared after a UFO sighting to talk to witnesses and, if any evidence was recovered, to confiscate it. They pressured people not to talk about their experiences, often leaving the impression that they were agents of some top secret branch of the government, even though they claimed no allegiance to any such organization and showed no official ID of any sort. They always dressed in black suits, spoke in flat, emotionless tones, and seemed to be of Asian descent, though no witness was ever able to identify an exact country of origin.
Ian found all of that weird enough. But far creepier was the Men in Black's erratic nature, which the author of The UFO Prophecies went to great lengths to document. They would make an initial visit, schedule a follow-up, then never return. They would start out discussing the UFO sighting, and then soon branch out into completely unrelated topics, such as the interviewee's work life or favorite TV shows, topics which would consume the bulk of the interview. Sometimes they would stop in the middle of the interview, in the middle of a sentence, even, and just get up and walk out without saying another word. Strangest of all, they would sometimes arrive to interview a witness before they had sighted a UFO, acting as if the event had already occurred. Sometimes these people never would see a UFO.
And then there was a pattern of on-again, off-again harassment. Phone calls: often just hang-ups, sometimes weird electronic sounds, other times breathing. Being followed in traffic by old model cars which appeared brand new. Finding out the Men in Black had questioned your co-workers, your kids' teachers, even clerks in stores where you shopped.
Sometimes the Men in Black demonstrated the uncanny ability to predict the future. One example particularly struck Ian, a time when a pair of Men in Black visited a UFO witness and halfway through the interview predicted a bridge would collapse, killing dozens. A week later, their prediction came true. They returned to speak with the witness once more, this time predicting a horrible plane crash -- which never occurred.
The author provided strange, twisting rationalizations for what UFO's and the Men in Black might really be. Not space people, exactly, but rather beings associated with ancient and esoteric mythologies that Ian couldn't understand, and fabulous entities with ominously impermanences names like coo-thoo-loo and nyarla-something-or-other. The author seemed particularly enamored of one name, Azathoth, and he repeated it quite often.
Ian didn't understand much, if any, of that. But at the end of the book, the author made a final comment on the Men in Black's mercurial nature that Ian did understand. He wrote: "If there is a universal mind, must it necessarily be sane?"
That one sentence did more to frighten Ian than all the monsters and UFO's in the world could. For it was the first time that he realized the disturbing possibility that Existence was not neat and orderly, not following some grand benign plan. That everything might ultimately be nothing more than meaningless chaos.
It was too much for a twelve year old. The next day he had his father take The UFO Prophecies back to the library (he refused to touch it any more), and that was the end of his
reading binge. In fact, except for the occasional article in the tabloids his future wife/ex-wife would bring home, Ian would never read anything about paranormal events again.
But he never forgot that final question.
By the time Ian pulled into the bank's parking lot, he felt calm once more. And quite stupid. He wasn't the sort of person to react so emotionally, and certainly not because some weird
restaurant-goer happened to resemble a space-age boogey man from his childhood.
You should not have said anything. You should not have drawn attention to yourself.
He parked his car and turned off the ignition, but he didn't get out.
He probably confused me with someone else, Ian thought. Yeah, that sounded reasonable. Sounded normal. Comforting rationalization firmly in place, Ian got out of his car and went into the bank. He was a loan officer, which was good because he didn't have to deal with little old ladies bringing in fifty pounds of wrapped pennies as the tellers did, bad because of all the paperwork his job entailed, a mound of which was waiting for him on his desk.
He sat down, sighed, and then grabbed a handful of paper at random and got to work. He had no idea how long he'd been at it when he had the feeling he was being watched. He ignored it at first; many customers looked around the bank while they waited in line and even though his desk was in the back, it was in plain sight, so he was used to being looked at. But the feeling persisted for much longer than it should have, and finally Ian looked up.
And there, standing over by the table which held the customer banking forms, was the Man in Black. No, not the Man, not the one from the restaurant. This one was a hair shorter, a shade heavier, his features slightly more Asian. He was, though, dressed exactly like the other had been, almost as if it wasn't a suit he was wearing, but rather a uniform of some kind.
The man stood at the table, pen in hand, tip resting on a withdrawal form -- or perhaps a deposit slip, it was hard to tell from where Ian sat. But he wasn't looking at the paper. Instead, he was staring over his shoulder at Ian.
Ian felt his guts turn to ice water. The rational part of his mind kicked into overdrive. It was a coincidence, nothing more. The black clothes were a cultural thing, a color and style favored by whatever ethnic group this man and the one at the restaurant belonged too, nothing more.
But then why was he staring?
The man turned his attention back to the form he was filling out. The pen scratched across the paper briefly, then, finished, the man set the pen down. He folded the slip neatly in half once before dropping it to the floor. He then pulled the pen off the chain that held it to the table and, as Ian watched, popped it in his mouth and chewed, plastic crunching and popping. The man swallowed, then turned back to Ian and grinned, displaying ink-blackened teeth.
Ian felt the ice water that had been his innards freeze solid.
Then the Man in Black left, moving stiffly and deliberately, as if unused to walking.
Ian watched as the man pushed open the glass door and stepped out onto the sidewalk. As the door glided shut, Ian got up and rushed over, aware that people were looking at him, but not caring.
He peered through the glass, but despite the fact the man had passed through the door only seconds ago, he was nowhere to be seen. Ian turned and glanced at the neatly folded bank slip resting on the floor. He didn't want to pick it up, didn't want to touch it. He didn't have to; he had a good idea what was written on it.
You should not have drawn attention to yourself.
Two others came in before the bank closed that evening. The first ignored Ian completely as he walked once around the lobby and then departed. The second headed toward his desk, but Ian got up and hurried to the restroom and locked the door. He waited a full fifteen minutes and when he got out, the Man in Black was gone, but all the paperwork on his desk was neatly stacked and, he noticed, in alphabetical order.
On the way home, Ian kept glancing nervously in his rearview mirror, expecting any moment to see an old style car that looked like it had just rolled off the assembly line behind him. But he didn't.
He was tempted to stop by the library, to see if they had a copy of The UFO Prophecies. Perhaps it might contain some information he'd forgotten, information that would help him deal with the Men in Black. But the thought of being confronted by one or more of the sinister men in the library's stacks quickly put an end to that idea.
He pulled into the parking lot of his apartment complex cautiously, looking at every car he passed, trying to remember if he had ever seen it here before. He parked and hurried up the two flights of stairs to his apartment, unlocked the door, and virtually slammed it shut behind him. He threw the deadbolt, hooked the chain, and then -- and only then -- gave a sigh of relief. He was home. He was safe.
Just then the phone's electronic warble pierced the air. Two rings, followed by a click as the answering machine engaged. The outgoing message tape whirred softly for a few moments before giving way to a loud BEEP!
Silence. And then . . .
"You should not have said anything." More silence, several seconds, a minute, and then finally the caller hung up. Almost instantly, the phone rang again.
Ian ran into the living room and picked up the receiver before the machine could cut in.
"It was a plane!" A shout, nearly a scream. Spittle flew from his lips. "That's all it was! Just a goddamned plane!"
Silence. And then the sound of a phone being hung up. Ian set the receiver down and then, for good measure, he yanked the cord out of the wall.
And that's when the pounding on his door began.
Two weeks later.
Ian hadn't left the apartment much, not at all for the last four days. He badly needed a shave and he smelled something fierce, though he had gotten used to his stink by now. He'd lost weight, hadn't been eating much, maybe not at all. He wasn't sure.
Janice and Bobby were gone. Where, he didn't know. He'd tried calling after that first day, worried that They had seen her with him in the restaurant and had marked her. The third day he'd driven past their old house. There was a FOR SALE sign in the yard, that's it, just FOR SALE in plain black letters (of course), no realty company listed. He parked in the driveway and looked in through the front window. The house was completely empty. No furniture, no curtains, nothing. He told himself perhaps Janice had moved and hadn't wanted to inform him, that maybe she thought it would hurt him to learn she was selling what had once been their house. But he didn't believe it.
He tried calling Janice's folks, her sister, even the office where she worked, for Chrissakes. No answer. From anyone.
He hadn't been to work for two weeks, and though he hadn't received a call informing him he was fired -- how could he with the phone unhooked? -- he was fairly certain he no longer had a job.
He'd unplugged all his appliances. They had been making soft electronic beeps that sometimes sounded like ethereal flute music and emitting sibilant whispers spoken in an ancient and somehow, he thought, inhuman tongue. He kept the lights off all the time, too, for when they were lit the bulbs had buzzed strangely in an on-again, off-again fashion that he thought might be some sort of code.
Last night he had looked out his bedroom window. He saw three of them standing beneath the unearthly blue-white glow of a street light, eating the bugs drawn to the illumination, catching them with the aid of fine tendrils that sprouted forth from their mouths in place of tongues.
Soon after that the pounding, which had occurred intermittently until then, began anew and hadn't stopped since. That had been nearly seven hours ago. Why hadn't one of the neighbors heard and called the rental office by now, called the police, for that matter?
But even as he asked it of himself, huddled in a corner of his living room, reeking of stale sweat and fear, Ian knew it was a foolish question. Foolish, because there was no reason. He
could see that now. That was what the Men in Black had come to teach him, had come to teach everyone.
He knew now that there was indeed a universal mind, and it most definitely was not sane.
He reached out and gathered the shadows, drawing them tight around himself to fashion a second, ebon skin. Then, garbed in darkness, he stood, grinning, and went to answer the door.
Created: August 11, 1997; Updated: August 9, 2004