Monday, April 7, 2014

"What You Are About To See" by Jack Skillingstead (Part 1 of 3)

Alien ContactIn 2011, prior to the release of my Alien Contact anthology (from Night Shade Books), I decided to take a different approach to introducing the anthology to readers: Instead of simply listing the table of contents -- a boring list of story titles and authors' names -- I blogged about each story, one story per week for 26 weeks. Of course, about four or five weeks into the project I realized the magnitude of the task I had set for myself: 26 weeks, one-half of a year! I won't go into the details here, you can check out my "Alien Contact" page where you'll find a listing of all the related blog posts.

As part of this project I obtained permission from a number of authors to post the complete text of their stories. Most of the stories were posted here, on More Red Ink. One story, however, Jack Skillingstead's "What You Are About To See," was posted on the Night Shade Books website and also on the NSB Facebook page. So it was to my surprise -- and dismay -- to discover a few weeks ago that the story had been wiped from both the NSB website and Facebook page.

After conferring with Jack Skillingstead, we agreed that the story should remain available online (and free) for future readers -- and so I am posting the story here (below) in three parts. I encourage you to first read my original blog post on the story, which provides the genesis and history of the story as well as how I selected it for the anthology.

And now, enjoy....

"What You Are About To See"
by Jack Skillingstead
(©2008 by Jack Skillingstead.
Reprinted with permission of the author.)

It sat in a cold room.

Outside that room a Marine handed me an insulated suit. I slipped it on over my street clothes. The Marine punched a code into a numeric keypad attached to the wall. The lock snapped open on the heavy door, the Marine nodded, I entered.

Andy McCaslin, who looked like an overdressed turnip in his insulated suit, greeted me and shook my hand. I'd known Andy for twenty-five years, since our days in Special Forces. Now we both worked for the NSA, though you could say my acronym was lowercase. I operated on the margins of the Agency, a contract player, an accomplished extractor of information from reluctant sources. My line of work required a special temperament, which I possessed and which Andy most assuredly did not. He was a true believer in the rightness of the cause, procedure, good guys and bad. I was like Andy's shadow twin. He stood in the light, casting something dark and faceless, which was me.

It remained seated—if you could call that sitting. Its legs, all six of them, coiled and braided like a nest of lavender snakes on top of which the alien's frail torso rested. That torso resembled the upper body of a starving child, laddered ribs under parchment skin and a big stretched belly full of nothing. It watched us with eyes like two thumbnail chips of anthracite.

"Welcome to the new world order," Andy said, his breath condensing in little gray puffs.

"Thanks. Anything out of Squidward yet?"

"Told us it was in our own best interests to let him go, then when we wouldn't it shut up. Only 'shut up' isn't quite accurate, since it doesn't vocalize. You hear the words in your head, or sometimes there's just a picture. It was the picture it put in the Secretary's head that's got everybody's panties in a knot."

"What picture?"

"Genocidal carnage on a planet-wide scale."

"Sounds friendly enough."

"There's a backroom theory that Squidward was just showing the Secretary his own secret wet dream. Anyway, accepting its assertions of friendliness at face value is not up to me. Off the record, though, my intuition tells me its intentions are benign."

"You look tired, Andy."

"I feel a little off," he said.

"Does Squidward always stare like that."


"You're certain it still has the ability to communicate? Maybe the environment's making it sick."

"Not according to the medical people. Of course, nothing's certain, except that Squidward is a non-terrestrial creature possessed of an advanced technology. Those facts are deductible. By the way, the advanced technology in question is currently bundled in a hanger not far from here. What's left looks like a weather balloon fed through a shredder. Ironic?"

"Very." I hunched my shoulders. "Cold in here."

"You noticed."

"Squidward likes it that way, I bet."

"Loves it."

"Have you considered warming things up?"

Andy gave me a sideways look. "You thinking of changing the interrogation protocols?"

"If I am it wouldn't be in that direction."

"No CIA gulag in Romania, eh."

"Never heard of such a thing."

"I'd like to think you hadn't."

Actually I was well familiar with the place, only it was in Guatemala, not Romania. At its mention a variety of horrors arose in my mind. Some of them had faces attached. I regarded them dispassionately, as I had when I saw them in actuality all those years ago, and then I replaced them in the vault from which their muffled screams trouble me from time to time.

Andy's face went slack and pale.

"What's wrong?"

"I don't know. All of a sudden I feel like I'm not really standing here."

He smiled thinly, and I thought he was going to faint. But as I reached out to him I suddenly felt dizzy myself, afloat, contingent. I swayed, like balancing on the edge of a tall building. Squidward sat in its coil of snakes, staring...

* * * *

Now return to a particular watershed moment in the life of one Brian Kinney, aka: me. Two years ago. If years mean anything in the present context.

I was a lousy drunk. Lack of experience. My father, on the other hand, had been an accomplished drunk. Legendary, almost. As a consequence of his example I had spent my life cultivating a morbid sobriety, which my wife managed to interrupt by an act of infidelity. Never mind that she needed to do it before she completely drowned in my legendary uncommunicative self-isolation. The way I viewed things at the time: she betrayed me for no reason other than her own wayward carnality. You'd think I'd have known better; I'd spent my nasty little career understanding and manipulating the psychology of others.

Anyway, I went and got stinking drunk, which was easy enough. It was the drive home that was the killer. The speedometer needle floated between blurred pairs of numbers. By deliberate force of will (I was hell on force of will) I could bring the numbers into momentary clarity, but that required dropping my gaze from the roller-coaster road sweeping under my headlight beams—not necessarily a good idea. Four. Five. Was that right? What was the limit?

Good question.

What was the limit?

I decided it wasn't the four whiskeys with beer chasers. No, it was the look on Connie's face when I waved the surveillance transcript at her like a starter's flag (Race you to the end of the marriage; go!). Not contrite, guilty, apologetic, remorseful. Not even angry, outraged, indignant.

Stone-faced. Arms folded. She had said: "You don't even know me."

And she was right; I'd been too busy not knowing myself to take a stab at knowing her.

Off the roller-coaster, swinging through familiar residential streets, trash cans and recycle containers arranged at the curb like clusters of strange little people waiting for the midnight bus. I lived here, when I wasn't off inflicting merry hell upon various persons who sometimes deserved it and sometimes didn't. These days I resorted to more enlightened methodologies, of course. Physical pain was a last resort. Guatemala had been an ugly aberration (I liked to tell myself), a putrid confluence of political license and personal demons unleashed in the first fetid sewage swell of the so-called War On Terror. Anyway, the neighborhood reminded me of the one I wished I'd grown up in. But it was a façade. I was hell on façades, too.

And there was Connie, lifting the lid off our very own little strange man, depositing a tied-off plastic bag of kitchen garbage. Standing there in the middle of the night, changed from her business suit to Levi's and sweatshirt and her cozy blue slippers, performing this routine task as if our world (my world) hadn't collapsed into the black hole of her infidelity.

Connie as object, focal of pain. Target.

Anger sprang up fresh through the fog of impermissible emotion and numbing alcohol.

My foot crushed the accelerator, the big Tahoe surged, veered; I was out of my mind, not myself—that's the spin I gave it later.

The way she dropped the bag, the headlights bleaching her out in death-glare brilliance. At the last instant I closed my eyes. Something hit the windshield, rolled over the roof. A moment later the Tahoe struck the brick and wrought-iron property wall and came to an abrupt halt.

I lifted my head off the steering wheel, wiped the blood out of my eyes. The windshield was intricately webbed, buckled inward. That was my house out there, the front door standing open to lamplight, mellow wood tones, that ficus plant Connie kept in the entry.


I released my seatbelt and tried to open the door. Splintered ribs scraped together, razored my flesh, and I screamed, suddenly stone-cold and agonizingly sober. I tried the door again, less aggressively. My razor ribs scraped and cut. Okay. One more time. Force of will. I bit down on my lip and put my shoulder to the door. It wouldn't budge, the frame was twisted out of alignment. I sat back, panting, drenched in sweat. And I saw it: Connie's blue slipper flat against what was left of the windshield. Time suspended. That bitch. And the Johnstown flood of tears. Delayed reaction triggered. As a child I'd learned not to cry. I'd watched my mother weep her soul out to no changeable effect. I'd done some weeping, too. Also to no effect. Dad was dad; this is your world. Lesson absorbed, along with the blows. But sitting in the wreck of the Tahoe, my marriage, my life, I made up for lost tears; I knew what I had become, and was repulsed. The vault at the bottom of my mind yawned opened, releasing the shrieking ghosts of Guatemala.

You see, it's all related. Compartmentalization aside, if you cross the taboo boundary in one compartment you're liable to cross it in all the others.

By the time the cops arrived the ghosts were muffled again, and I was done with weeping. Vault secured, walls hastily erected, fortifications against the pain I'd absorbed and the later pain I'd learn to inflict. The irreducible past. Barricades were my specialty.

* * * *

The Agency stepped in, determined I could remain a valuable asset, and took care of my "accident," the details, the police.

* * * *

Flip forward again.

You can be a drunk and hold a top secret clearance. But you must be a careful one. And it helps if your relationship with the Agency is informally defined. I was in my basement office carefully drawing the cork out of a good bottle of Riesling when Andy McCaslin called on the secure line. I lived in that basement, since Connie's death, the house above me like a rotting corpse of memory. Okay, it wasn't that bad. I hadn't been around enough to turn the house into a memory corpse; I just preferred basements and shadows.

"Andy," I said into the receiver, my voice Gibraltar steady, even though the Riesling was far from my first libation of the long day. Unlike Dad, I'd learned to space it out, to maintain.

"Brian. Listen, I'm picking you up. We're going for a drive in the desert. Give me an hour to get there. Wear something warm."

I wore the whole bottle, from the inside out.

* * * *

[Continued in Part 2]

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