Sharri Bockheim Steen
Not one among the thousands standing in the rain that day looked surprised to find the Nevadan desert sodden and gray. After all, this was Area 51 and these were conspiracy theorists. The unexpected was—as a matter of course—expected.
They were here in response to a classified ad:
Tag Sale: Groom Lake Test Facility. Fri 9am-2pm.
Parts electronic and otherwise. Parking $5. No early birds.
Of course, they recognized Groom Lake as Area 51, that infamous repository of government secrets. And, of course, they arrived early. Days early. They camped along the roadways in RVs rigged with satellite scramblers and filled the registers of Las Vegas-area motels with pseudonyms and pseudo-addresses. They had parsed the ad for hidden messages, argued over possible anagrams, but only agreed on two points:
- The government must think they’re idiots to try charging $5 to park in an empty desert.
- All vindication and validation hinged on the word “otherwise” in “parts electronic and otherwise,” though they disagreed on what it signified. Props from the Apollo “moon landing”? Alien skeletons from downed U.F.O.s? Invisible spacecraft?
“Weather machine!” insisted the wild-eyed little man standing too close to Arthur in the crowd outside the gate. “Global warming? Propaganda! The Establishment’s stupidest cover-up yet.”
Arthur hadn’t expected his casual remark about the rain to trigger a spit-spattering tirade about top-secret weapons responsible for rising sea levels and violent weather. But then he looked around and realized he might be the only attendee not plotting to expose a bureaucratic lie or substantiate a pet theory. His only objective was to make it through his first adventure without Marcy.
Before retirement, she had always set their itineraries—and set them at full throttle. She rented the Ferrari to race along the Amalfi Coast; he sat in the passenger seat with a grin plastered to his face. That’s how he’d pictured their retirement: an exhilarating ride with Marcy at the wheel.
But something changed last October when she retired. No plans materialized to hike the Himalayas or sail the Seychelles. Marcy spent her days watching television in the living room of their North Las Vegas home. Her only regular outing was a nail salon two blocks away.
“Isn’t this nice,” she would murmur when Arthur joined her on the sofa. She would snuggle closer and sometimes fall asleep on his shoulder. She was always tired. (Heart trouble? Depression? Cancer?) He would put an arm around her and hope he radiated serenity, not anxiety. Or restless discontent. Or shame about his restless discontent.
Arthur checked his watch. 8:32AM. The wild-eyed little man—who reminded Arthur of his terrier Bailey launching himself against the front window at the mail carrier—stepped closer and thrashed his arms. “Tornados! Hurricanes! Floods! Whatever it takes to scare the populace into submission!”
The man’s breath smelled of celery. Arthur stepped back. He tried to appear interested, but the man’s intensity embarrassed him. Or perhaps he was embarrassed by his own inability to match the crowd’s fervor. Despite the dreary weather, the gate area outside Area 51 was festive. One bushy-bearded group sat in camp chairs under a tarp swapping tips for living off the grid. A couple in matching camouflage jumpsuits marched past sharing a packet of freeze-dried venison. A fistful of young men in combat boots argued passionately about the role of Freemasons in the New World Order. Ladies with lime-green beehive wigs hustled through the crowd hawking “J-Rod for President” t-shirts depicting an egg-headed alien with beady black eyes.
Arthur imagined whispering to Marcy, “Compared to these characters, we’re the aliens.”
She would have laughed.
8:40AM. The weather man’s diatribe ground to a halt. He glared at Arthur with fierce disgust and then huffed off, likely in search of a more excitable audience.
Arthur was left alone with his damp shoes. Uncomfortable, but he was still glad to be there. He hadn’t made up his mind until early that morning after a long night of indecision. A government tag sale a few hours from home, he finally concluded, was tame enough to attempt on his own yet adventurous enough to appease his restlessness. And not exotic enough to seem disloyal to Marcy.
While following Bailey’s waddling backside on a shortened version of their morning walk, he had dithered over what to tell Marcy, if anything. Maybe he should say outright how much he missed their adventures. But then she might accompany him out of a sense of obligation. Maybe it would be better to first show her the newspaper ad and gauge her interest. Or would that make it more awkward if she wasn’t interested and he went anyway? An invitation might even prompt her to sit him down and reveal some terrible medical prognosis.
Better not to know.
To his relief, there was no need to decide. By the time he and Bailey reached home, Marcy was engrossed in a recording of yesterday’s Today Show, her most concerning preoccupation. (Early-stage memory loss? Dementia?) She acknowledged his return with a cheery wave of her lavender nails. He left a note and fled before he could change his mind.
Why lavender? She had never been the pastel type. Why nail polish at all? She had never been the manicure type. Or was he reading too much into this harmless new interest? Maybe she simply never had time before.
8:51AM. Arthur looked up. The carnival atmosphere outside Area 51 had vanished. People pressed toward the entrance, gazing into the gray distance to appear nonchalant while jockeying hard for position. They were no longer comrades; they were competitors.
Arthur joined the crowd at the chain-link fence and flimsy tollgate. Las Vegas had cheap apartment complexes with better security. But the two armed guards in their dust-colored fatigues were impressive. In their mirror sunglasses they looked impervious to the incongruities around them—the rain-soaked desert, the crowded wilderness, the inconsequential gate protecting immensely consequential (allegedly) state secrets.
9:00AM. If there was a signal, Arthur missed it. The crowd surged forward, and he found himself shuffling among the crush and jab of shoulders and elbows, backpacks and handbags.
The tag sale had begun.
Armed guards directed the swell of people through the jet-sized doors of a hangar set apart from the other buildings. At the sight of the laden tables, attendees dropped any remaining restraint and sprinted down the rows.
Eventually Arthur was swept into the back of the hangar, where the crowd was sparse enough that he could inspect the merchandise. The nearest table held scrap metal pieces. Unrecognizable but nothing to excite speculation. Other tables were piled with office electronics: obsolete computer monitors, printers, and rotary phones.
Arthur wasn’t the only one disappointed. The people around him stopped shoving. Individuals melded into groups, and groups huddled between tables, muttering.
Where are the disassembled U.F.O.s and reverse-engineered spacecraft?
The technologies that control people’s minds through digital television?
Proof that human-alien hybrids are running America?
An acne-pocked young man in a black trench coat approached a guard. “Hey, what’s all this stuff supposed to be? Where’s the good stuff?”
The guard’s face remained expressionless behind his sunglasses. “This’s it. Take it or leave it.”
The questioner turned to those watching. “Can you believe this junk?”
“Yeah,” a woman yelled out. “Why’d you let us in if you don’t have anything good?”
The crowd’s murmured agreement was broken by a gaunt, shaggy-haired man with a shrill voice. “Oh-ho, I know why. It’s a ploy! These are all parts of something huge—let’s call it X—that They’re trying to hide. So They busted X into a million pieces, disguised the pieces as boring stuff, and are selling ‘em off, one by one. Once X is scattered, no one can prove it ever existed!” He looked around in triumph. “They want to use us to hide X!”
The audience quickly found truth in this. “Aha!” “I knew it!”
The young man in the trench coat swept aside a box of battered staplers and stood on a table. “Wrong! I’ll tell you what’s really going on. They know we figured out what They’re up to, so They lured us here to get rid of us. I, for one, won’t be surprised when the floor drops out and we’re buried alive with all this junk in an underground nuclear missile shed!”
The audience gasped. Someone screamed.
“Ha!” countered shaggy-hair man. “Where’s your proof?”
“Proof!” scoffed trench-coat man. “As if anyone here needs proof.”
The crowd rumbled. The guards stiffened and began muttering into their walkie-talkies about “Code Jaundice” and “Situation 51.”
Arthur, whose general policy was to avoid conflict, moved toward the nearest door.
A guard stepped in front of him. “Exit’s that way,” he said gruffly, pointing his chin toward the open hangar door at the other end of the building.
“Bathroom,” Arthur replied, watching his own earnest reflection in the guard’s mirror lenses.
The guard paused, distracted by the warring factions forming among the tables. (“They’re using us!” “They’re after us!”) “Left, then down the stairs.”
The restroom was truly restful after the scene upstairs, but Arthur added its institution-white walls and fixtures to his mental list of Area 51’s disappointments. However, while washing up, he noticed a pair of mirror sunglasses nestled among the balled-up paper towels in the trashcan. One earpiece was bent, but they fit. The bathroom mirror showed a Man of Mystery. A Man of Adventure. A man of baldness and slight paunchiness but one capable of finding his own way out. Doing his own reconnaissance. Arthur straightened the sunglasses on his nose and soundlessly opened the door.
Outside the bathroom, guards shoved past, ordering use of the hangar’s sprinkler system to quell the growing upheaval. Arthur, hurrying in the other direction, wondered what the wild-eyed man with the weather machine theory would make of this method of crowd control.
The long underground corridor was silent except for the squelch of Arthur’s shoes and the chill buzz of the fluorescent lights. He shivered. Government ploys seemed more credible down here. What if the guards were alien hybrids hiding their glassy insect eyes behind mirror sunglasses? And what if the owner of the bent sunglasses wanted them back…and wasn’t far behind?
Arthur’s sense of adventure vaporized. A door up ahead was open a crack. He would turn himself in.
His knock pushed the door open further.
“Hello?” he whispered, only half hoping for a response.
The room was dimly lit, made dimmer by the sunglasses. He could make out a large space with a shiny linoleum floor. In the center stood a beige, closet-like structure with an open door.
Arthur circled it cautiously. “Hello?”
The structure was dark and empty. It looked ordinary enough, but—after watching hours of cable television movies with Marcy—Arthur firmly believed that one should never enter a dark, empty structure. Never. Which is why he was shocked to find himself bolting into it after hearing a faint noise in the hall: a drip or a blip or a footstep. Or nothing at all.
The latch clicked shut and an overhead light blinked on. Arthur yanked at the door handle, frantically, vainly. He was standing in a cramped space constructed of molded plastic, reminiscent of an airplane lavatory but without the emergency exit instructions or service call button. He was desperately skimming the long list of posted restrictions (“No smoking. Not for use by pregnant women. Do not operate while intoxicated.”) when the whirring began.
A female voice overhead, tinny and distant, startled him. “Hello? Is someone in there?”
A second voice, this one booming and male, joined the first. “What the heck! This’s my mission!”
“I— I’m sorry,” said Arthur. “It was an accident. I wandered in by mistake.”
The female was quick to soothe. “It’s okay, it’s okay. We’ll talk you through it. You activated the next E-NOW mission.”
“My E-NOW mission!” The intercom crackled with the man’s outrage.
“E-NOW?” Arthur desperately needed to sit but didn’t dare so much as brush against the structure’s sides.
“Expansion of a Naturally-Occurring Wormhole, moron,” snapped the man. “You know. Time machine.”
“But don’t get too excited,” said the woman. Her chuckle soothed Arthur. It reminded him of Marcy’s imperturbability. “It’s been classified as experimental for decades. Probably always will be. Too many paradoxes. And potential abuses. Right, Mike?”
The man—Mike—made an odd croaking sound that triggered in Arthur’s mind scenes from a laughably bad cable movie he and Marcy had watched one dull afternoon. Frog People wearing colander-like helmets emerged from underground tunnels to take over the world. Their croak-laugh after tricking the hero into their trap sounded like Mike’s noise.
Arthur stared at the door latch. What if he threw his weight against it?
The female reached the end of a long explanation. “So that’s why we’re studying it. We only have clearance for small hops back in time. Then we check that nothing substantial changed.” She paused. “Are you okay?”
Arthur nodded numbly at a chin-level aperture that might be the camera. Hops? He tried not to picture the two speakers as having moist, green skin and wide, lipless mouths.
“Good. Actually, this is a great opportunity!” A moment’s static couldn’t disguise the brightness in her faraway voice. “I’m convinced the E-NOW could spawn a revolution in work-life balance. I work a ten-hour day in thirty minutes! And it’s connected to the HVAC, so commuting takes seconds. So once you try it and see how great it works, you could tell the other guards and then all of you would benefit.”
Guard? She thought he was a guard? “Wait! Stop! Please! I’m sorry but I’m not—”
“Let me guess,” Mike interrupted with nasal sarcasm. “You’re not familiar with the HVAC either? (…bunch of idiots guarding this place…).”
“It stands for High-Velocity Alternative Conveyance.” Her voice cut in quickly, perhaps to cover the male’s rudeness. “You know, the underground train system with entry points across the globe? It’s not well-maintained these days, but it’s still a great system. You wouldn’t believe the places I’ve visited between projects. And at a moment’s notice. Machu Picchu, Angkor Wat, sunrise in Patagonia, sunset in Zimbabwe—”
There was a cheerful “ping!” like a toaster oven. The door unlatched.
“So now what?” Mike sounded sulky. “I suppose you’re going to let him do my mission?”
“He might as well. It’s straightforward enough.”
Not knowing what to expect, Arthur decided to throw in his lot with the maybe-Frog People, at least until escape was possible.
He had to lean forward to hear the female’s instructions over Mike’s mutterings. “Now, when you open the door, you’ll find yourself at a press conference that happened yesterday. Earlier today, one of our agents visited the scene and accidently knocked into a big vase.”
“Nudged,” said Mike. “’Knocked’ makes it sound like the vase fell over. It just got nudged a little. Barely moved.”
“Still, the motion was caught on camera. And our mandate is to not take any chances with recorded footage of the past, no matter how minor. All you need to do is stand behind the vase—the one to the left of the stage—and hold it steady without being seen on camera.”
“Just stand there?” asked Arthur. “Like a normal human? I mean, like I belong there? Will anyone—any… being—be able to see me?”
“People at the press conference will see you, but that’s fine as long as you’re inconspicuous and stay out of the cameras’ views. That’s all Mike was supposed to do on this mission.”
As Arthur adjusted the volume knob on Mike’s complaints, he grinned at his own silly fears. Mike couldn’t be a Frog Person, because a Frog Person wouldn’t be inconspicuous at a press conference. Besides, who ever heard of a frog named Mike?
He had to increase the volume when the female voice returned. “It should only take four minutes. When the speaker says ‘This is all a conspiracy,’ that’s your cue to return to the E-NOW through the door marked HVAC. I’ll take it from there. Okay? Ready?”
“I think so,” said Arthur cautiously. “I mean, it sounds easy enough.”
“Great! You’ll do fine. After your visit, we’ll review the footage to see that everything is back to normal, okay? Now. Take a deep breath. When you’re ready, open the door.”
“And don’t interfere with anything else, or you’ll cause real problems,” Mike added. “Just hold the stupid vase still.”
Arthur took a deep breath and opened the door.
The brightly lit room was crowded with people. Regular human people, mainly reporters with cameras and microphones. They were facing a stage, on which a large man with a graying crewcut and navy suit was saying, “I deny all allegations of embezzling government tag sale proceeds.”
The scene looked vaguely familiar. Had he seen this on last night’s news?
Arthur straightened his sunglasses—grateful for the disguise—and located the waist-high ceramic vase filled with dried flowers. Avoiding cameras, he circled the crowd and—with a growing appreciation for his own inconspicuousness—stationed himself behind the vase. He gripped its lip with one hand and wedged a hip against its cool ceramic side. The dried leaves and flowers scritched against his raincoat to the beat of his pounding heart.
As the speaker, addressed by reporters as “Senator,” expounded on his devotion to American principles, Arthur took in the bewildering situation from his hiding place. If this event took place yesterday, what happened to today? Was it possible to be both here and home watching this on tv? If the news cameras panned over the vase, could he—if he had been sitting on the sofa beside Marcy yesterday (today?)—have glimpsed the rain-coated elbow or damp shoe of a certain Man of Mystery? Or would that count as being seen on camera? He pulled in his elbow and foot.
Suddenly, Arthur was knocked from behind with such force that he barely managed to keep the vase still. His head was thrown forward, and the sunglasses flew off and landed among the dried flower stems.
Arthur stifled a gasp and reached through the stems to retrieve his glasses.
His fingers closed instead on an envelope. It was marked SENATOR in block letters. It hadn’t been there a moment ago.
“This is a conspiracy!” shouted the senator.
His cue! Arthur frantically groped for the sunglasses. From deep in the vase he heard a gentle clink as they settled on the bottom. Now what? He stuffed the envelope in his raincoat pocket and scuttled toward the door marked “HVAC.”
As soon as the latch clicked shut and the overhead light flicked on, Arthur regretted his spur-of-the-moment decision to take the envelope.
“Hello?” he said, panting into the camera. “I think I made some mistakes out there. Some changes.”
A moment’s static, then the female voice returned from its tinny distance. “Oh my word!”
“I’m sorry. My sunglasses fell deep in the vase. And I took something.”
“You aren’t a guard! I thought you were a guard!”
Arthur touched the bridge of his nose in surprise. The mistaken identity had slipped his mind. “The sunglasses. I meant to tell you. I found them. I came for the tag sale and then needed the bathroom and…” He stopped. It was hard to explain.
“I’m sorry, I—” They both spoke at the same time, then broke off, leaving a silence that seemed to stretch eons.
“Look,” she finally said. “If I had known, I never would have sent you out there.”
“No, no. It’s fine. It’s good. In fact, it’s exactly what I needed.” Arthur felt the truth of this statement as he spoke. He had felt alive out there. Energized. Adventurous. Worthy of mirrored sunglasses.
“Well, it’s very kind and accommodating of you to say that, considering how much you… Considering you aren’t the type to…”
The aura of the sunglasses slipped away. Arthur grimaced in self-deprecation. “I don’t exactly look like a Man of Mystery and Adventure, do I. But I’m great at being inconspicuous.”
She laughed uncomfortably. “Well, that was exactly what we needed. Someone inconspicuous. You did great, by the way. Really great.”
Arthur’s blush spread to his ears and throat. He felt himself straining toward the warmth of her voice.
The E-NOW’s whirrings were the only sound for a few moments. It struck him that Mike hadn’t chimed in.
“Where’s your co-worker?”
“Mike? Oh. Bathroom. Meanwhile, I’ll say what he won’t: thanks for undoing his error. You probably already figured out he’s the one who knocked the vase in the first place.”
Arthur held up the envelope. “Then is he also the one who hid this in the vase? I hope I didn’t cause more trouble by taking it.”
“No, you did the right thing. Quick thinking. Great instinct on your part. Leave it in the machine, and I’ll take a look.” She made a sound that might have been a sigh. “I did suspect. He’s so cagey and possessive about his trips. Guess I should revisit the scene and see what else he’s been up to.”
The whirring changed to a whine. Her distant voice brightened. “Well. Guess I’m going to be short an employee. Ever consider this line of work?”
Arthur smiled at her joke. Wait. Was she serious? “I can’t!” he sputtered.
She laughed. “Just kidding. You’ve probably had enough adventure to last the rest of your life.”
“Oh, no. It’s not that. I was craving adventure. I need it in my own quiet way. But my wife. She needs me till she gets back on her feet. Then I’ll—we’ll—be off. She’s the leader of our adventures. She’s amazing. Fearless. She’s…”
Arthur blushed again and pretended to be interested in a glowing knob near his elbow. Why was he telling this stranger about Marcy?
“Well. You’re just full of surprises,” she said after a moment. “If you like adventure that much, want me to send you home by E-NOW? I can get you there before you left this morning.”
Grateful for the subject change, Arthur thought back over his morning: the drive, the drizzle, the dissension. It seemed like a different world—a bland world—compared to this one he had stumbled into. “Yes. Please.”
“Great! And, hey, I’m really sorry about the misunderstanding. I guess I… Well. I shouldn’t make assumptions.”
This time when Arthur stepped through the E-NOW door, he found himself outside in cool morning air. Bailey glanced up from leisurely sniffing a nearby utility pole.
Arthur shut the door behind him. On its exterior was stenciled, Glitzy Nailz HVAC Access. He was behind a strip mall two blocks from home.
He looked at his watch. 6:05AM. He would leave for the tag sale in ten minutes. Except he had already been there. What does one do with a morning the second time around? Maybe nothing. He was exhausted.
When Arthur arrived home, Marcy was, once again, sitting on the sofa watching a recording of yesterday’s Today Show. This time, Arthur collapsed beside her.
She squeezed his hand. “So. Did you buy me anything?”
Had he been supposed to pick up something for Marcy while walking Bailey? It was confusing to keep track of time the second time around.
He looked down at her hand on his. Marcy’s nails were bright coral. Hadn’t they been lavender before?
“You got your nails re-done?” he asked.
“I was at Glitzy Nailz anyway.”
As Arthur thought this through, the newscaster said, “Let’s go live to a press conference where Senator Jay Rodman is addressing allegations of government tag sale fraud.”
“I need to watch this,” Marcy said. “But, hey, want to come along tomorrow?”
“To the nail salon?” Arthur asked cautiously.
“For starters. But you’ll need these.” From the pocket of her quilted housecoat, she pulled out a pair of mirror sunglasses with a bent earpiece.
About the author:
Sharri Steen lives in Rocky Hill, New Jersey, and splits her work time between medical writing for local pharmaceutical companies and teaching high school biology at The Wilberforce School in Princeton Junction. Her publications include short stories in The First Line and U.S. Route 1.