The Liberty Diner is a desolate place in the morning. It breathes a hollow hello when I open the door to yesterday’s lingering aromas: fried shrimp, burgers, and honey-buttered chicken. I erase yesterday’s breakfast special—THREE EGG OMELET WITH BACON AND HOME FRIES—$5.99. Outside, birds begin to sing. I flick on the lights. Another day begins.
Matt has me working undercover here. He’d better watch out. I might tell him to shove his Assistant Detective job. Just yesterday, I told him, “My waitress job at the diner pays better and it’s not half as dangerous. What kind of fucking title is Assistant Detective anyway?”
He just smiled, ignored my rant, and said, “Watch out for a male with crossed eyes.” But I already knew this. He’s told me before.
Matt’s detective agency, consisting of Matt and myself, has contracted with the Department of Alien Elimination, a newly created sector dedicated to finding and destroying the alien menace. Thus far, the department has been patient with our judicious but deliberate pursuit of the aliens, but I’ve got the feeling that if we don’t soon unmask an alien, waitressing may be my only option.
“All of the aliens apprehended have been male,” he says. “They look human, except that they can’t uncross their eyes and they have a terrible sense of fashion. So if you see a cross-eyed man wearing patent leather shoes with sweat pants, check him out.”
“How do I do that?” I ask.
“Get real close and listen to his heart.”
I know what to listen for—Tell Tale Heart Syndrome— where the alien heart pounds so hard you need to cover your ears to save your hearing. It’s an involuntary reaction the aliens have whenever they come in close contact with a human female. I know all this because Matt had me read the government document “Best Practices to Detect and Destroy the Alien Menace.” I only read the detection section. “I’m an Assistant Detective,” I tell him. “The destroy part is up to you.”
“Fair enough, sweetheart.”
Sweetheart! Hell, I could wring his neck. You’d think he didn’t know my name.
Aliens can’t resist a big breakfast. It says so in Best Practices. They also seem to have an affinity for winged creatures, not to eat but to befriend. I’ve made a mental note of these facts. In the restaurant, we have our usual crowd of early, hungry customers. Then the crowd thins out and I sit at the counter for a cup of coffee, but before I finish, another customer arrives. He takes a seat at the window. It’s past midmorning. Oddly, the birds at the window begin to sing again. We usually have birdsong at daybreak but then they quiet down. He’s watching them when I approach with pad and pencil. I notice he’s wearing an orange-striped tie with a blue plaid shirt. When he orders a large stack of pancakes and a ham steak. I notice his eyes are crossed.
“No eggs?” I ask, and he shakes his head.
It’s not until I reach the kitchen with the order that I put it all together. I take a furtive peek at the customer who has his head turned away, still watching the birds. Then I call Matt and tell him to get his ass over here.
I’m hanging out at the counter, watching my suspected alien on the sly, when Matt arrives. “Where’s he at?” he asks.
“There, at the window booth.”
“He eats like an alien.” The man is wolfing down pancakes between slurps of coffee. “Have you done The Tell-Tale test?”
“I don’t want to get that close him. I hate his outfit and those eyes give me the creeps.”
“That’s what you’re here for sweetheart. His heart won’t pound for me. Too bad he’s sitting. It works best if you body up to him. Look, take him some coffee and just touch him wherever you can. Sometimes it doesn’t take much.”
I rise with the coffee pot in hand but Matt grabs my shoulder and warns me, “Don’t forget your earplugs, honey. I don’t want you going deaf.”
I stuff them in quickly and start forward again.
“More coffee, sir?”
He looks up with one eye trained on me while the other points out the window. He nods with a full mouth, and I pour. Then I set the pot down on the table and take his face in both of my hands. He tries to tear them away, but I hold steady. The sound begins with a low rumble but then pounds in my ears. Customers cover their ears and turn their heads, trying to avoid the racket. The alien looks at me, panic-stricken, and breaks free of my grasp. He bolts for the door but Matt is standing there with his electrocution gun. It looks like a small bazooka with a pistol grip. He zaps him at the exit. The alien degrades into a gooey substance that looks like liquid egg yolk, oozing over the floor like The Blob.
Steve McQueen would be proud and Matt looks pleased himself. “We’ll have to call Hazmat to take care of this mess,” he says. “By the way, Greta, great job.”
My heart flutters because he calls me Greta, but I’m disgusted by the mess on the floor. The customers are gaping. They’re horrified. I can see it in their faces, but the yellow blob is blocking the doorway. I open the emergency door in the back and they file out in quick order.
I look back to Matt. “Why do we have to kill these aliens?”
“Presidential order,” Matt says, “and the government pays a big bonus.”
“Oh, well then, it must be okay.” Outside, I take a last look at the diner and throw in my towel. Matt puts his arm around my waist and we walk away, on to our next adventure.
At least a dozen people of the United Church of Christ congregation identify Matt and me as visitors and they greet us on the sidewalk before we get inside. The church is brightly lit with sunshine beaming through bountiful windows. We choose a pew near the rear where we can observe the most people, albeit the backs of their heads. I’m wearing a sangria tea-length midi. Matt’s wearing a crisp white shirt and a patterned tie with pressed blue jeans. I frown at the jeans, “That’s not church appropriate,” I say.
“We’re here to observe an alien. How are you going to run in those shoes?” He looks down at my heels. He’s wearing sneakers.
I shrug. “A girl’s got to dress for church,” I say defensively. “Besides, I thought this was a surveillance only mission.”
“It is, but you never know what might happen. If he runs, we nab him.”
I still feel squeamish every time I remember the day he zapped an alien at the Liberty Diner, turning him into a mound of yellow goo. I have nightmares, but I’m determined to be the best Assistant Detective I can be. “You can count on me,” I say, and I show him my Nike’s, tucked into an oversized purse.
“That’s my girl,” Matt says.
We follow the church service so as not to draw attention to ourselves, but at the same time, we’re watching the congregation. I nudge Matt and point out a tall, lean man with dark hair that falls over one of his eyes. He’s wearing sunglasses indoors, and I immediately think he may be trying to hide crossed eyes. But, perhaps, he has an eye condition that necessitates their use.
Matt nods. “Good pickup.” We continue to watch him throughout the service.
I lose track of him briefly during the passing of the peace. A lady in the pew in front of us comments, “All this peace makes me happy.”
I’m thinking, it may not last long, lady. I smile at her, hoping that Matt and I don’t have to destroy her illusion. But there is an alien amongst us.
The man with sunglasses turns out to be one of the ushers passing the plate. He stares in our direction for an extra second when he reaches our row, whether because we are new faces or he suspects we’re on his trail, I can’t tell. I throw in a five and hand the plate to him. His fingers are long and narrow, the nails clipped close. I want to see his eyes, get a good close look into the soul of an alien, but the glasses preclude that possibility. I glance at Matt, but he’s looking straight ahead.
As the service ends, the suspect rises and hurries to the back of the church. I’ve already slipped on my Nike’s so I’m ready when Matt nudges me. He follows behind the suspect while I brush my way past the line of people waiting to greet the pastor, making my way to the exit door. The suspect sees me and turns but finds Matt only a few steps behind. The suspect surges toward me, running now. People turn their heads in surprise as he rushes past them. I step into the doorway, but he bowls me over. The man stumbles too, his glasses fall from his face. I see his crossed eyes as we lay at the church threshold, only a few feet from each other. I glare at him but I don’t see deep-seated evil in those eyes. All I see is fear.
People are staring at me. This is no way for a churchgoer to behave. I ignore my embarrassment and rise up. He’s up too and running, but I fly at him and make a shoestring tackle. His face hits the pavement straight on, and he lies still. A yellow, yolk-like substance protrudes from his nose. I turn away in disgust.
Matt pushes through the crowd of people. “Sorry,” he says, “I got hung up in the crowd.”
He helps me to my feet. My knees are bloody. “Oh, I’ve ruined my nylons.”
An old lady in her eighties, one of the congregation, says to me, “Come inside with me, missy, and we’ll get you cleaned up.” She takes me by the elbow.
I glance at Matt and he says, “Go ahead. I’ll take care of him.” He nods toward the alien who is beginning to stir.
The lady stares at our prisoner. “Imagine that: Mr. Greenway is an alien. He’s been with the church for years and always so friendly. I always pray for his eye condition to heal. Thank you, missy, for stopping him. Who knows what mischief he’s been up to in the house of God?”
It takes me three attempts to pass the pharmacy tech test. Then I land a job at one of the chain pharmacies in town. It’s bright and clean with large aisles. The prescriptions are filled in the rear.
Matt says the aliens have discovered that their crossed eyes can be corrected with the use of Dravidil. You may have seen this drug advertised on television. It increases the level of blood flow in humans and is used to correct erectile dysfunction. It’s a lot cheaper than Viagra. Let me tell you, I’ve been hit on by a lot of old grisly men since it came on the market. They’re more of a menace than the aliens.
Dravidil works differently on aliens. It uncrosses their eyes for a period of up to eight hours. Without crossed eyes, they’re hard to detect. After all, most male humans also eat like pigs and don’t know how to dress, so there isn’t much to differentiate them.
Unscrupulous doctors write prescriptions for aliens if the price is right, so Matt assigned me to look for them at the pharmacy—aliens, that is, not unscrupulous doctors. The government doesn’t care about them. I’m working with the head pharmacist, Rosa, today. She asks, “Greta, did you see this flyer from the police department?”
My interest is peaked. I take the flyer from her hand. Matt’s been after the department to put out flyers on aliens. But, no, it’s a picture of a wild-eyed white male, approximately five foot nine inches and weighing one hundred and eighty pounds with blond hair and blue eyes. He looks nothing like an alien.
“He’s wanted for rape. Have you seen him in the store?”
“No,” I say as I stare at the picture, memorizing the man’s features.
“He’s a regular, needs his insulin, so keep an eye out. He’s bound to show up sooner or later. But don’t confront him. Let me know or call 911.”
I want to tell her that I’m not her ordinary, run-of-the-mill, pharmacy tech, that I’m a trained Assistant Detective, but I don’t because I can’t have that getting around. We Assistant Detectives must protect our identities. I can’t even post my true occupation on Facebook.
Days go by with neither the rapist nor an alien appearing. I have my mind full of gobbledygook—trying to keep straight the generic drug names with their corresponding brand names. Matt hasn’t been around because he’s scampered off to Washington for a meeting with the Department of Alien Elimination. I’m on my own. It’s good to know that he trusts me, but I miss him.
The rapist shows up late at night at the end of a twelve-hour shift. I’m so sleepy that I don’t notice him. He’s standing in line behind a measly looking man wearing a polka dot raincoat. The raincoat man hands me a prescription for Dravidil and says he’ll wait. I think I may have an alien on my hands. His eyes are wobbling back and forth as if he’s trying to keep them from crossing, but I can’t be sure. The only sure-fire way of exposing him is the Tell-Tale test, so I make up an excuse to come out from behind the counter. I slip my earplugs in and put the suspect in a bear hug. His heart immediately starts pounding, emitting that loud screeching sound I’ve heard before. I’m about to cuff him when Rosa calls out, “It’s the rapist! Don’t let him get away.”
I’m confused because this alien has a dark complexion, but then I notice the customer who’d been in line behind him, backing away. I can’t both cuff the alien and apprehend the rapist. Rosa’s screaming, “Stop him. Stop him.” The rapist starts to run. I push the alien aside and dive, grabbing hold of the rapist’s scruffy shoes. In a moment, I have his hands cuffed behind his back, but the alien is gone. I feel guilty because I couldn’t apprehend both fugitives. I had to make a choice.
After the police take my statement, Rosa gives me a hug. “What a relief not to have to worry about him anymore. You are a brave woman, Greta.”
Matt, who is just back from Washington, arrives at the store after the police leave, but he isn’t so appreciative. “You should have caught the alien. We could have gone to the Bahamas with the bounty.”
I’m intrigued by his implied proposition. I love the Bahamas, and the thought of being there with Matt has a distinct romantic appeal, but when I remember the relief on Rosa’s face I can’t help but think I made the right decision. Matt doesn’t understand the woman’s point of view. Besides, I’ve never heard of an alien hurting anyone. The only thing I’ve ever known them to be guilty of was, well…being aliens.
Matt drives me home because I’m too tired to drive. He’ll take me back for my car in the morning. He gives me a yearning look when we arrive at my apartment. I should invite him in, I think. I’ve been waiting forever for just such an opportunity, but now that it’s here, all I want to do is sleep. I tell him I’ll see him in the morning.
I’m standing behind the lawn section of a large amphitheater, listening to a Tchaikovsky symphony. There are thousands of people on the grounds, lying on blankets or sitting on lawn chairs dragged from home. Matt sends me on the wildest goose chases. How can I possibly pick out an alien in this crowd especially with dusk falling? Especially since the invention of Dravidil and its widespread use among aliens.
The Tchaikovsky piece opens with a low bassoon melody as soft as dew, but a single engine prop plane flies overhead, interrupting the beauty with an annoying buzz. Surprisingly, the conductor stops the soloist, allowing the obtruder a moment of glory before it fades into oblivion. The bassoon starts again at the conductor’s command.
What a masterful solution to an exasperating problem. If Matt had been the conductor— admittedly, a ridiculous conjecture— he’d have tried to shoot the damn plane out of the sky. A difference in temperaments, I suppose. Sometimes the best solution lies in tolerance.
The music is so beautiful that I forget, for a moment, my purpose for being here. I walk slowly behind the patrons, trying to pick up any sign that an alien may be amongst them. I’m thinking, that with this many people, there must be at least a few of them on the grounds.
“Aliens are attracted to orchestral music,” Matt said earlier today. “It says so in this memo.” He holds a sheet of paper with The Department of Alien Elimination letterhead on the top. I don’t think he put much faith in it though; otherwise, he would have accompanied me. Instead, he said he was going to the bar to listen to a local country band. I don’t mind because I’ve outgrown the crush I’d had on him when I was a wet behind the ears assistant. Now I’m a full-blown detective.
I sit on a bench behind the crowd where I can observe the orchestra in the pavilion and the audience. In the short pause between movements, a young man asks permission to sit.
“It’s a free country,” I say and slide to the left, leaving a wide berth between us. He sits on the very edge, as if afraid to be near me. I sneak a glance his way. After all, watching is my profession. He’s kind of cute, with blue eyes and brown hair that falls almost to his shoulders, so unlike Matt’s close-cropped look. He’s wearing a polo shirt, jeans, and hard-soled dress shoes. I raise my eyebrow at the shoes.
A monarch butterfly alights on his arm and stays for long minutes. He watches until it lifts its wings and floats away. Then he looks at me and smiles. I look away. We must be the only two unaccompanied people here. I’d been too intent on aliens and the music to feel self-conscious about being alone until now with this guy next to me.
At intermission, he offers to bring me a soda. I decline but he brings one anyway.
“My name’s Rob,” he says, handing me a cold cup.
We chat until the orchestra starts again. He’s an engineering student at the university. I feel an inexplicable longing to be back in school.
The third and final piece is an atonal work by a modern composer I have never heard of. I’m tired, and I’m glad when it’s over. Maybe an alien will show himself in the commotion of everyone leaving. They have an aversion to crowds, as do I. Whenever I go to a movie I pretend I’m interested in the credits, waiting for the crowd to disperse before I make my way out. Maybe an alien will adopt the same strategy in this circumstance and hang back until the bulk of the crowd is gone.
People file out along the concrete pathway to the parking lot. I remain seated on the bench. Rob does too. He inches closer to me until we’re only a breath apart. There’s a gentle glow in his eyes. I anticipate a kiss that never comes. Instead, he backs away. “Great concert wasn’t it?” he asks.
I stare at him as if he has two heads. Soon the crowd thins and I get up to leave. Rob rises too. “I’ll see you to your car,” he offers.
“No need.” I wish he would just go away until I look into those eyes again.
“It would be an honor,” he says.
By the time we arrive at the lot, only a few straggler cars are left. We arrive at my CX-3 and I encircle his waist with my arms. I really want to taste that kiss I missed. He freezes for a second and then I hear a low rumble emancipate from his heart. I pull my hands away and hold my ears before the screeching begins.
He looks at me like a sad puppy.
“No!” I scream. “You can’t be.” I pull my electrocution gun from my purse but he shoves me. I bounce off the car and tumble to the ground. I get up. I can’t see him in the dark but I hear his footsteps. I know I could stop him. I raise the gun but then lower it again without firing. The footsteps fade softly into silence.
The spring air is abloom with life in the year that the first female alien is discovered, and I don’t know what I’m doing in the university library. I’ve been hanging out here for weeks, so much so that I know the head librarian, Ester, by name. She’s a middle-aged woman with tied back blonde hair and a curiously flat nose.
“Just hang around. Read books,” Matt says when he assigns me there.
“Aliens in libraries?” I ask. “Are you serious?”
“It’s just a hunch,” Matt says. “Nothing official.”
I don’t believe that for a minute. I choose books at random on my first day as an undercover bookworm. I haven’t been in the library since I dropped out of my freshman year to take up with Matt in pursuit of intruders. I keep my head on a swivel more than in a book, looking for studious aliens. Something about the intellectual atmosphere makes me think that insight into aliens may lie within the pages of these books. Ester helps me select titles in fields ranging from biology and psychology, cosmology and geology, religion and philosophy. Of course, I don’t explain the purpose of my research. She’s bemused by my variety of interest, and she raises her eyebrow when I ask for Childhood’s End by Arthur C Clarke. Wisdom lies within fiction, too, I reason.
I get so involved in reading that I forget to watch for aliens. I don’t let Matt know that. I just say I haven’t seen anyone suspicious. He says to keep trying.
One day at lunchtime, Ester notices me outside on a campus bench, enjoying the sunshine along with my burger. She asks if she can join me. I say okay.
“I’m fascinated with the minds of authors,” Ester says. “Such a wide variety of ideas, beliefs, and points of view, yet their minds are constructed from the same DNA blueprint.”
“I’ve never thought of it quite that way,” I admit. “I just read what’s on the page.” Ester nods. “You have to consider things from a distance.” She has a far-off look in her eye but then she’s right back with me, “Don’t mind me, I’m feeling philosophic today.”
I smile because it feels good to make a friend. Lunch with Ester becomes an everyday affair, one that I look forward to. She’s a bit of an odd duck, I must admit. She never discusses her past or her personal life. It’s almost as if she doesn’t have one. Instead, she’s full of questions, as if she were the detective rather than me. I even wonder if I should suggest that Matt hire her to keep an eye out for aliens at the library, but I don’t because that would mean I move on to another assignment. While that may work well for the firm, I’d lose the pleasure of Ester’s company.
Matt appears in the library. I’m tucked away in a corner table behind a stack of books. “How can you see anything from here?” Matt asks. When I don’t say anything, he continues, “Well, never mind that, I’ve got reliable information that there is definitely an alien on campus. Most likely, a female.”
“Female! I’ve been looking for males.”
“Of course you have.”
There’s a moment of silence before he looks away and picks up one of the books lying on the table, Contact, by Carl Sagan. He tosses it aside. “I mean aliens.”
“Yes,” I say.
“If the alien is a female, I’ll have to perform the Telltale Heart test on her. You won’t be able to do it.”
That seems reasonable to me. “How do we catch a female?” I ask.
“They’re harder to spot than the males. They’re thought to be friendly, personable, and they have an affinity for working with large volumes of information.”
“I can see why we’d want to eliminate them, but isn’t there anything physical that we can look for.”
“The scuttlebutt is that most of them have rather flat noses.”
I gasp and raise my hand to my mouth.
“What is it?” Matt asks.
“Nothing,” I say, perhaps too vehemently.
“Greta, have you noticed someone like that?”
I don’t want to expose Ester. Suddenly I’m terrified that my friend is an alien and that my boss will reduce her to a puddle of egg yolk before my eyes. But I’ve signed a pledge of allegiance to uphold the bylaws of the Department of Alien Elimination. “Yes, flat nose, middle-aged, tied back hair. It’s the librarian,” I say. “Hurry, she’s upstairs. I’ll check down here just to be sure.” Matt would have seen her anyway. At least, now he’d be upstairs for a few moments.
Matt is off in a flash, taking the stairs two at a time. I run to the front desk where Ester is assisting a student. I grab her by the arm and pull her behind a shelf of books.
She tears her arm from my grasp. Her voice is shrill. “Greta! What do you think you’re doing?”
I have no time for tact. “Are you an alien?”
She cringes. “What?”
“Get out of here. Now!”
Ester turns pale. She stares at me, searching my eyes. Then she walks out the front door with her head held high. I wonder if I’ll ever see her again.
I’m sitting in a booth at the Liberty Diner, waiting for Matt to arrive. Its dawn and the birds are singing. There’s a new administration in Washington and the war against aliens has been abandoned. There’d been rallies against the brutality and public opinion has been swayed; the old guard has been removed from office making way for progressive thinking.
I’m sympathetic to the new thinking. Aliens look like people, after all. They aren’t insects to be squashed underfoot, and never have I seen an alien even threaten a human being. That’s why I quit my job with Matt and went back to school. I haven’t seen him for over a year.
I’m the first customer in the diner. The waitress brings me a cup of coffee but I don’t know her. It’s been years since I worked here, and I didn’t leave on good terms, having walked out after my first alien extermination. I’m glad not to be recognized.
At night in dreams or during the day if I allow my mind to wander, I see faces from the past: the agonized faces of dying aliens, Rob’s face when I pulled my gun on him in that parking lot, and Ester’s look of confusion and then gratitude when I warned her of impending doom.
I finish my third cup of coffee and check my watch. Matt’s almost an hour late. The waitress comes by with the pot but I wave it off and order the omelet special. If Matt doesn’t show before I finish, I’ll have to leave or miss my class.
Just then, he arrives. He looks older, a touch of gray at the temples. When he sees me he breaks into a wide grin. That’s a relief. He wasn’t happy when I quit.
We hug and then he holds me at arm’s length, “You’re looking good, Greta. Going back to school has been good for you.”
A compliment from Matt still makes me tingle. I watch him drink coffee while he fills me in on the events of the last year and the dismantling of the Department of Alien Elimination.
“What are you going to do now?” I ask.
“Back to private practice,” he says. “If you think tracking aliens is daunting, wait until you have to deal with warring spouses.”
“So you’ll be shooting a camera instead of a gun?”
“You too, if you like. I could use a good associate, and there’s no shortage of cheating husbands.”
“Or wives, for that matter, I imagine.”
The offer tempts me. I miss the investigation because I’m good at it, but I have another plan in mind. “Thanks for the offer Matt, but I’m going on to graduate school.”
“I didn’t think you’d accept, but I miss you, kid. What are you taking up?”
“Alien studies. I hope to help aliens acclimate to our society and to break down the stereotypes we humans have of them.”
“That’s quite a turnaround, but I see where you’re coming from. We’ve committed some sins.”
I nod. I’m glad he doesn’t say we were just following orders. The birds start to sing again even though it’s way past dawn. Instinctively, I look for an alien, but I don’t see any. I look again at Matt and decide to skip my class. I take him home and sleep with him just to satisfy an old craving.
Russ Lydzinski, a retired Finance Manager, writes short stories out of Olmsted Falls, Ohio. A previous published story, “The Autumn Cottage,” can be found in issue four of Burnt Pine Magazine.