Swamp Gas

by Cat Rambo

How do these things always happen? One of those nights when the darkness presses in. You keep glimpsing things that might be significant, half-caught and usually mis-seen, admirals on bicycles, swamp-gas in faerie shape, Bigfoot, an alligator slithering back into a ditch.

The car headlights skidded over darkness and rain-drizzled neon, exposing concrete. My back hurt like someone had taken a sledgehammer to it, but only when I moved, so I tried not to. I’d been at the gym, finally gave up after I’d felt that wobble in my back that meant pain to come. I was thinking fondly of aspirin, having searched through my purse unsuccessfully. I was pretty sure I had some on the kitchen counter.

By the cemetery, up ahead by the chain link fence, the half-glimpsed memorials shaped like angels and Cadillacs, she had a newspaper raised over her head to keep her mermaid blonde hair dry.

She peered along the street, looking for someone. I pulled over, remote unrolled the passenger side window, and leaning towards it, shouted, “Do you need a ride?”

She hesitated, looking in. I shrugged at her, a middle-aged female, fitter than most, dressed in unremarkable sweats. There was no one lurking in my back seat, no hook hanging from the door handle, or smell of decay waiting to ambush her, and the rain was hastening, so she nodded and slid in, words falling quick as sleeting raindrops, “Thanks! I’m just going as far as the bus station, is that too far?”

“Nope,” I said, and slid the car out of park. “Change the radio if it’s unbearable.”

But she shook her head – apparently Elvis was fine – and subsided into her seat, clicking the seatbelt and pulling her pink sweater closer around her as though cold. She put her bowling bag, pink and pistachio green, at her feet, slid the folded newspaper in between it and the door.

“Thanks,” she said. Barely twenty, if that. Just leaving her teens behind, ready to embark on the next step to adulthood.

I knew the way to the bus station. We didn’t talk much, just inconsequentialities, weather and the reputed rain of frogs in Texas, no politics, no religion.

There was something wrong about her face, her scrunched-up cat face that seemed too pert, too triangular. Her white teeth were big, almost too big for her mouth.

When she left the car and dashed across the lot, I didn’t see until it was too late that she’d left her sweater, a lacey pink thing, handknit and old-fashioned looking.

#

At first I waited, hoping she’d remember, come back by herself. Good Samaritans shouldn’t have to walk through the rain on top of good deeds.

But I did, because that’s the sort of person I always have been and always will be, no matter how much I try to change it.

She wasn’t in the bus station.

I looked in the waiting room, the Christian Science reading room, the rest room. Finally I went up to the ticket clerk in his glass case, looking like an old fortune-telling machine.

I asked if a blonde girl had just bought a ticket. He stared at me with an odd expression and said, you too, Lady?

I said what. He said you’re the fifth one this month come in looking for her, but like I tell all of you, I ain’t never seen her. She’s a ghost.

A ghost, I said, and I could see my tone was dubious, because something sparked in his eyes, an angry look.

A ghost, he repeated. You go look it up online, Google around.

#

When my husband first announced he was leaving, after thirty-two years of marriage, at first I didn’t do a lot. My therapist kept pushing me to find stuff I enjoyed, but there wasn’t much of that until I found the gym.

I found it with a vengeance. Not a fancy gym, with spa and trainers in pink or 500 channels on each treadmill. A plain old bodybuilder’s gym, where no one gave you a second look, and you could just go in and work out without having your body fat measured or your progress charted. Most mornings I took a Pilates/yoga class and followed it up with an hour on the elliptical, and then sometimes in the evenings a workout class designed to kick my ass. At first it did. Then I started feeling stronger and more kickass myself.

It kept me from thinking, brooding, going into the black spirals that no amount of antidepressants seemed able to combat. I had thought that I might be going back on the market, might want to trim up, get rid of some middle-aged flab. Even after I’d decided screw dating, I still went going, because it made me forget things while I was there.

My husband – soon to be ex-husband – didn’t believe I wasn’t interested in dating. Maybe it was guilt. He’d certainly been quick enough himself to start, even before I knew anything was going on, really. A succession of women he worked with, which seemed like a foolish choice to me, but apparently he (and they) had a lot of pent-up longing to be released.

Then he decided that if I wasn’t dating men, I must be looking for women. Sure, I’d gone through that phase in college, but don’t most of us? And there were female movie stars I wouldn’t have kicked out of bed, but that’s why they’re movie stars. Truth be told, I wasn’t interested in anyone. The thought of dating, of picking through other people’s likes and dislikes in an attempt to match my broken edges to their own? Too much, too much by far.

Still, I kept thinking about that girl. Not in a sexual way. As though I’d glimpsed a possibility, some echo from a long-past, missed opportunity. I’d see the way her hair had gleamed with raindrops as the streetlight played over it, or hear that soprano voice thanking me.

So I did Google around.

She was a ghost. Account after account, dropping her off at the bus station. Sometimes she’d mention a location, Aurora or Lubbock, Texas or Roswell, Arizona, but more often not.

I’d had an encounter with a real, live ghost. Maybe not live so much.

Which is why, when I saw her again, I stopped.

It wasn’t raining that night. The clear night held clouds as lacey as her sweater, lying in the back seat.  The moon did a striptease across the sky. A dog was barking somewhere, a fierce guttural sound like fingers in its throat.

She recognized me and hesitated.

“The bus station, right?” I said. She nodded and closed the door behind her.

This time neither of us spoke as we drove along.

“Are you a ghost?” I asked finally.

She shook her head. The same distortion I’d noted before in her features slid across her face, like a mask crumpling.

“A traveler,” she said. “An observer.”

“What do you observe?”

“Humans,” she said. There was an odd note to her tone this time. A touch of longing?

“Aren’t you human?”

“This is…” She paused. “A semblance. Borrowed. And the ghost story, most people don’t question farther than that.”

“So you’re…” I paused in turn, hoping she’d fill it in. She still carried the bowling bag.

She didn’t answer me until we’d pulled in beside the station. Some kids were clustered outside. One was playing a didgeridoo made of white PVC pipe. His music droned along my nerves, making the hairs on my arms stand up. When she spoke, was there a trace of ozone, a tang of antiseptic?

“An alien,” she said.

This time she left the bowling bag behind, perhaps shaken by my interrogation.

I took it home without opening it. It sat on my front table. Every time I went to the gym, I found my gaze touching it in passing, fingers itching to pick it up rather than the bag holding my sweats and gym lock.

When I finally opened it, it was full of stars.

And music. It dazed and staggered me to stare inside it. I came back to myself when I got thirsty, hours later. I kept thinking about opening it again, craved it like a drug.

I put it in the backseat of my car, not daring to keep it in the house.

The third time I picked her up, she said, “Why?”

“I needed to bring your bag back.”

She retrieved it. “I have others,” she said.

“Weren’t you afraid I’d take it to the FBI?” I asked. “I mean, an alien invasion, maybe that’s something the DHS would like to know about.”

“I’m glad you didn’t.”

“Why?”

“It would have exploded. You’d be dead.”

I circled the bus station block, not stopping.

“I need to get out here,” she said.

Reluctantly I pulled to the curb. She didn’t say anything else as she scurried away. This time she left no belongings behind.

Except a scrap of paper, sky-blue, printed with crudely drawn roses, which smelled of some electric perfume.

I didn’t expect to ever see her again. That’s why, two days later, when I caught sight of her in the gym, I hesitated.

She was talking to Pat, a woman ten years or so older than me, driven by the same forces I was, I suspected. Pat was thin and wiry, and had an over-exercised look.

She walked away and I came up to the alien.

“What do you want?” I said. No preamble, no beating around the bush.

She watched Pat with an unnerving intensity. “This memory form is fading,” she said. “I’m looking for a new one.”

“Well, you can’t have her,” I snapped. “She’d be missed.”

The alien looked at me uncertainly.

“I would too,” I added, lying through my teeth.

“I don’t want you,” she said, then added with nervous quickness. “Not like that.”

She exited before I could ask what she meant. I stared after her. Was an alien flirting with me? Because it had seemed that way to me, as dubious as that might sound.

I found myself looking at Pat in the locker room. Had the alien (why had I never asked her name?) been thinking of taking Pat’s shape to seduce me?

#

It was inevitable that I dreamed of Pat that night. A Pat with tentacles, a Pat who resembled a cactus full of spiders, a rat-faced Pat, Chihuahua-sized. And sexy, no matter what shape she was in.

#

On the fourth pick-up I asked her name. She said she couldn’t say, but she seemed pleased to be asked. I started to ask more, but she interrupted me.

“I’m only supposed to watch. We don’t get involved with anyone we don’t intend to harvest.”

I should have focused on the “harvest” part, which had certain alarming overtones of waking up in a bathtub full of ice with my kidney gone.

But instead I said, “What makes you think I want to get involved?”

She vanished.

#

The final trip she seemed nervous.

“I’m a deviant,” she said.

“Because you’re a lesbian?” I said. “Hey, that’s more and more accepted these days.”

The radio began to crackle and hiss, and the car engine stuttered once, twice. I pulled over. We hadn’t gotten very far, just a couple of blocks from the cemetery.

“I’m sorry,” she said. There was light shining all around us, blinding me, and a high-pitched whine that hurt my ears. Then gone.

#

There was someone in her place, a white-skinned, dark-eyed creature. It wasn’t her, though. It was someone else, regarding me with disapproval.

“You will never speak of this,” it said. It touched my head and I felt a shudder go through my system. It didn’t like touching me, I could tell that. It held its four fingers stuff and rigid, as though the contact were distasteful. I realized I’d gotten it wrong.

Not a lesbian. That term had no meaning for her. She liked humans, and I could tell from the other’s attitude that this was a perversion.

It made me drop it off at the bus station as well, although it called it a “nexus.” It didn’t leave anything behind and it didn’t speak to me again, as though I were an animal incapable of understanding.

But I did understand I’d never see her again, that the souvenirs she’d left in my car, the sweater, the scrap of paper, would be gone, vanished, and I was left with only a story too weird to be told.

Not that they’d let me tell it. Every time I tried, my mouth would clamp shut, bound with invisible chains. I couldn’t tell anyone of my vanishing alien hitchhiker.

But I can write it down. And I can replay it in my head, at the gym, watching Pat pass and wishing for a moment that her hair would shine golden, that her face would narrow and grow odd, and it wouldn’t be a sweater, a bowling bag, a ticket to nowhere this time.

This time she’d leave herself behind.

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