It was just after sunset and Doug decided to risk going outside on the balcony. He dragged out his favorite chair from the den — a well worn captain’s chair with a puffy pillow tied to the seat — and took down the Sunday paper he’d been saving from the top of the refrigerator. The apartment was quiet. No, he thought, more than quiet. Absolutely silent; very rare in the condo. It would be a crime to break it. Doug slid the patio door open with a whoosh and carried out the captain’s chair to avoid scratching the floor. One more trip in side for a can of diet cola and Doug was set to enjoy this time alone.
Not that he didn’t love his family. He thought of Marion’s shy smile with a pang of guilt. He really shouldn’t enjoy himself so much when she took the kids out shopping at the mall. But then, there was the silence. The perfect silence and the peace he felt. Doug settled into his chair, satisfied absence would make his heart grow fonder… or so he hoped.
The air was still hot, but not the neon inferno it had been during the afternoon. Sunday afternoons were always nasty this time of year and this summer seemed worse than normal. Doug was glad he waited this long before leaving the air conditioned comfort of the condo. Outside the air was humid, but a low breeze kept it livable without becoming an annoyance. His paper ruffled, but did not move. Doug sat his cola down while he looked for the Business section. This was truly Heaven. The weekend chores were done and the pressure from the impending work week had yet to arrive.
This would be a great time to play Alien Tag.
Doug sat up. Odd. Alien Tag? When was the last time he had played Alien Tag? Twenty, thirty years ago? It was hard to remember. Doug turned his attention back to the stock market review, but Alien Tag remained. It was like a piece of unwanted song; repeating endlessly in the forefront of his brain.
He put down the paper. Alien Tag was a very dim memory. Doug wasn’t even sure how to play it anymore. There was a team of kids —
They were the crew.
Right. There was the crew and a doctor. And the Alien. Doug took a sip of cola. There was more to it than that. Doug tried to think, but the memories were stubborn. They wouldn’t come out any faster, no matter how hard he tugged.
He stood up and went back into the apartment. Dave. Dave would remember if anyone still did. Alien Tag was a local game — only the original kids in the neighborhood played it — and after they grew too old for tag, it had just died out. Doug went into the kitchen, looking for the phone book. It was in the top drawer next to the refrigerator. He took it out and stumbled through the names with his finger.
Twenty horses in a stable —
“One jumped out,” Doug finished aloud. He found Dave’s number and dialed it quickly. What should he expect? He hadn’t spoke with Dave in a long time. He hadn’t seen him in years. They had been friends in college, best friends in high school and almost brothers before then. But now, all that was left of a lifelong friendship was a handful of cards sent out mechanically at Christmas and birthdays.
The phone was ringing and Doug began to get some doubts. What was he going to say? Dave wouldn’t remember Alien Tag. Why should he?
Why should I, Doug asked himself. He would have hung up the phone, but at that moment there was a click on the other end of the line.
Doug stopped his hand halfway to the receiver. For a moment there was silence on both ends then he responded. “Yeah, how did you know it was me?”
“I don’t know… it was just — well, how the hell are you?” Dave had slipped into his nostalgic buddy voice; way too loud and way too friendly. Doug was thirty five miles away, but swore he could hear the click as Dave switched tracks. He could hear the voice and the patronizing smile and exaggerated gestures. Doug hate the pats on the back and the empty promises they’d have to get together real soon. He winced. It was all so clear; like Dave was in the room with him. Doug rolled his eyes and took a deep breath. It would be like wading through a bad beer commercial, but it was necessary. Alien Tag was beginning to give him a headache. Best just to make this quick.
“Dave, do you remember a game we used to play? Alien Tag?”
“Yeah…” the buddy voice cracked then fell away. “What about it?” Doug didn’t respond. He didn’t have time. Dave continued, ” You know, I was out jogging tonight when suddenly I realized I should be running — full out. The Alien’s chasing me. I swear to God that was my first thought. The Alien’s chasing me. So I ran. Ran like I haven’t in long, long time. I ran all the way home — almost a mile. I thought I was going to have a heart attack. But it felt… good in a way. Like I won something.”
Doug closed his eyes. “It was the smell, right?”
Dave thought a moment. “Yeah. The sweat smell. It’s so hot out and humid. The sweat just hangs on your face like oil…” He paused again. “The heat is important, isn’t it. And the humidity.”
“Yeah…” It was hot and humid during the summer. No one could stand being outside during the day and few could bear it at night. Except for the kids. It was their time to play. They had no school. They could stay out late — later than curfew because no one would want to go outside to look for them. That was the time to play Alien Tag. The summer nights when the air was so humid, it lay in the streets like a heavy fog. The houses blurred away, leaving them alone on an alien planet. That was when the game was real.
“What did you say?” Doug was startled; he almost dropped the phone. He had forgotten he was still talking with Dave. The memories were so strong.
“What’s going on, Doug?” asked Dave breaking him out of his thoughts again. His voice was almost pleading. “You know, I felt more than victory tonight. I was scared. Scared like I haven’t been in a long time.”
“I don’t know,” replied Doug truthfully. “We’ve got to get together on this.”
“How’s now for you?” asked Dave. Despite everything, Doug had to smile. It wasn’t an empty promise. There would be no more empty promises.
By the time Dave arrived, Doug had filled six pages — front and back — with memories of Alien Tag. He was rummaging through his desk for more paper when the bell rang. Doug got up and went to the door.
“Hey!” Dave cried with both arms out and a big open smile. Doug matched the arms and the smile. Dave hadn’t changed too much since he’d seen him last. The reddish hair was a little lighter with strands of gray here and there. Doug put an instinctive hand to his own hair and felt more skin than he liked. Besides a thin mustache and a few crow’s feet around the eyes, Dave was the same stoop shouldered guy he had called his best friend. They embraced quickly then pulled apart making sure no one had noticed. Doug ushered him into the living room and Dave looked around a little, whistling.
“Not bad… not bad at all,” he remarked. “Of course, not as nice as my place…” Doug snorted.
“Tell me another one, man.” Dave laughed and looked over the stereo system with an approving air. Doug looked over his shoulder.
“It’s got everything,” he explained. “Dual cassettes, digital tuner, compact disc player you can fit 100 discs in at once…” He kneeled down next to the unit. “The TV’s hooked up for stereo sound and here…” He pulled out a sliding shelf. “My old record player… so I can play 78’s if I want.”
“How loud does it get?” asked Dave.
“140 watts per channel,” Doug replied proudly. “We have five speakers plus a subwoofer. We can blow anybody out of the building.”
Dave laughed again. “Too bad they didn’t have this in college. It would have come in handy. Do you have to blow people out very often?”
Doug shook his head. “No, the stereo’s mostly for the kids,” he admitted. And he admitted to himself, I don’t really like my music as loud as I used to. He shook his head again and went to get his notes. Dave sat down on the couch and kicked his feet up on the coffee table.
“Better not do that,” said Doug from the kitchen. “Marion’ll kill you.” Dave took his feet down and brushed away any possible dirt.
“How is Marion? How are you guys getting along?” he asked.
Doug sat down in a chair opposite Dave. “Not too bad,” he said. “Marriage isn’t that bad. You should try it sometime.”
“Yeah, I’ll bet it’s not bad,” said Dave with a mock leer. Doug grinned.
“No, not that…” Doug thought about it then corrected himself. “Well, there is that.” Dave broke out in a fit of giggles. “But it’s nice, you know? Just to come home and know she’s there and the kids… it’s comfortable.”
Dave nodded along with him. “And how are the kids? Let’s see, Charlie must be about –”
“He’s Charles,” said Doug. Dave looked at him, surprised. Doug finished, “He’s twelve and Laura’s fifteen.”
“She have any boyfriends yet?”
“No, thank God.”
Dave laughed again then shifted his weight and changed the subject. “So what’ve you got?” Doug looked down at his papers. Most of them were filled with incomplete thoughts and bits of ramblings.
“Bunch of shit,” he replied.
Dave put his feet back on the table and leaned deep into the couch cushions. “Try me.”
Doug squinted his eyes. he knew he should be wearing his reading glasses, but he couldn’t remember where they were. “What do you remember about ‘Twenty horses in a stable, one jumped out’?”
“I hated that,” said Dave. “It was the quickest way to start up a game, but you could cheat at it too easily. Count the feet before you started the pick and then you knew who would be It. I hated when we did that.”
“What about ‘the Doctor’?”
Dave frowned. “He cured you, right? When you got tagged.”
“I think so,” replied Doug. “I seem to remember when the Alien tagged you, you froze for a minute. If the Doctor came by in time, he’d cure you –”
“And you were screwed if he didn’t.”
“But you weren’t an Alien, were you?” asked Doug.
“No. You were called something else.” Dave thought a moment. “A Mutant! That’s it! Mutant! Mutants worked with the Alien, but the Doctor could tag you and turn you back. And if you were the Alien, the Doctor would kill you.” Doug scribbled it down as fast as he could. Things were falling into place. In ten minutes, they had the basic rules of the game. After the rules came the faces and another ten minutes passed and they began to name them.
“Remember Kevin… damn! What was his last name? Something short.”
“Tell,” answered Dave. “He was a year older than us –”
“– and he was the fastest kid in the neighborhood. Man, the games were great when he was It!” Doug went back into the kitchen to grab a couple of sodas from the fridge. “People would be shifting sides so fast, you didn’t know who was who!”
Dave called after him, “Hey, remember that time when we were running around as a team?”
“We did that all the time,” said Doug from the bowels of the fridge.
Dave brushed the comment aside. “No, the time we were running around and we go through… God, I don’t know what all. We stop in between your house and Tim’s and you turn and say –”
“‘Boy, that was close. The Alien almost got us that time!’” Doug cried. “And then you say –”
“‘What? You mean you’re not a Mutant?’ and you turn around real surprised and say, ‘No. Are you?’”
“And you say, “Yeah.’ and tag me. You idiot! After all that, you tag me. I was so mad!” Dave curled up on the couch laughing so hard his face matched his hair.
“You should have seen your face! You wanted to kill me so bad… but YOU WERE FROZEN!” Dave laughed even harder, tears rolling down his face. Doug laughed, but not as hard. It wasn’t fair to tag someone like that. There wasn’t an exact rule about it, but still, the spirit of it. Dave shouldn’t have tagged him. He set down a couple of coasters with a hard smack. Doug didn’t realize he was still so passionate about the game. After all of this time. Dave was finally able to sit up again and catch his breath. Doug poured some pop into two battered Tupperware cups. Dave gulped down three swallows before the taste hit him. He made a face. “What the hell is this?”
Doug took a sip and spit it back in the cup. “I see what you mean. I hate diet cola… I really do.” He stood up suddenly. “Why don’t we grab some real pop?”
Dave stood up too. “In bottles. Glass bottles.” Then he cocked his head like a dog, “Do they still make those?”
“let’s find out.”
Not too many places were open. A few gas stations had food marts, but no glass bottles. Only cans. One offered fountain pop in Styrofoam cups. The cashier had the gall to say it was the same thing. Dave wanted to shoot the poor bastard; put him out of his misery, but Doug pulled him away from the thick glass surrounding the attendant. Doug had to laugh. The guy must have thought they were serious; his mouth gaped open like a goldfish in an aquarium. At last they found glass bottles at a convenience store across the street from a forest preserve. They leaned against Dave’s car and sucked on their bottles greedily. Cicadas were out, their chirping blended together into a constant buzzing. Doug looked over at the woods.
“You know,” he started, “this seems right.”
Dave pried his lips of the bottle rim with a loud pop. “What do you mean?”
“We’re supposed to be here. Alien Tag was bait; to get us together. And this –” said Doug holding up the bottle. “This was the hook.”
Dave slowly nodded his agreement. “I think you’re right. But what’s the point? Why should we remember Alien Tag?”
“I don’t know. Have you ever thought about it before tonight?”
“No,” replied Dave. “I have a terrible memory. Until tonight, I couldn’t remember anything from when I was a kid.”
Doug went white. His Coke bottle dropped to the pavement, breaking at the neck. “Oh my God.”
“What is it?”
Doug looked over at Dave, his eyes rimmed black like death. “I didn’t remember anything either. My memory went back to the summer when we were ten and before that was nothing.” Doug began to shake. Dave grabbed him by the shoulders.
“You’re overreacting. It doesn’t mean a thing. Lots of people don’t remember much from when they were a kid.”
“You don’t understand,” said Doug. “I didn’t have any memories at all…” He swallowed hard and looked out beyond Dave’s shoulder at a point in time only he could see. “My Grandpa died that spring. I didn’t remember him dying or being sick or anything.” A lone tear rolled down his cheek and glistened in the fluorescent lights of the storefront.
“I didn’t remember having a grandfather at all.”
Doug sat quietly in the passenger seat for nearly fifteen miles. Dave just kept his mind on the road, trying not to think about their destination. It had just come to him — right after Doug broke down in the parking lot mourning a man he hadn’t known for thirty years. Suddenly Dave knew why they were led to the convenient store. And they had been led. Even if they had found Coke in glass bottles somewhere else, they would have continued driving. Because it wasn’t the Coke or the store that was important.
It was the trees.
“You know, it’s an obvious gap…” said Doug. He took a stumbling breath and tried to control himself. “You’d think I would have noticed not remembering my own grandfather. I lived with my grandparents every summer. The only reason I was home that year to play tag…” He choked back a sob. “But it’s like something so obvious, you see right by it. It’s not until someone else points it out that you ask yourself why you missed it for so long.” Doug retreated back into himself once more. They drove in silence until Dave turned off the main road.
Doug lifted his head and looked around. “The old neighborhood?” Dave nodded.
“You remember the boundaries for the game?”
Doug shrugged. “They kept changing. When there was just a few of us, we kept the game to one block. Then when Alien Tag caught on, we stretched it out to two blocks, then to Chestnut Road then all the way to the forest preserve… ah, the forest preserve.”
Dave turned to look at Doug for a moment. “Then you remember the last game.”
“I’m beginning to.”
“We played as a team. Always,” Doug said. “In a game where it was every man for himself, we were always together.”
“And we cheated together,” added Dave. “We were way out of bounds that last game.”
“We ran into the forest preserve. It was dark, late at night.”
“Then what happened?”
Dave shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t remember yet. But soon…” The car bumped as the blacktop turned to gravel under the tires. Dave braked slowly, bringing them to a stop in front of a gate with a sign reflecting back at them in the glare of the headlights.
CLOSED AT SUNSET
They stood at the edge of the forest. Dark shapes stretched ahead of them as if they were blocking the way.
“We can still go back,” said Dave without much conviction. Doug shook his head.
“I don’t think so. I can’t seem to remember where I live.” Doug could still remember the condominium, but the layout was hazy. Was the carpet gold, or was that memory from their old house in the neighborhood? “I don’t think It will let us go.”
Dave stood motionless, trying to psych himself up. “Then, are you ready?”
Doug looked over at Dave then at the forest. “Yeah. You?”
Neither of them moved.
Doug looked down at his feet, making sure they were there. He couldn’t feel anything below his twisting stomach. He tried to calm himself down by reciting the names of his kids, but they too were lost in the darkness. His wife… Marion. He could no longer remember her apart from the girl who lived across the street. Doug looked up at the trees, staring hard to penetrate the darkness, but he couldn’t see anything.
“Come on,” Doug said finally. “If we’re going in, we’ve got to go in now.”
“You first,” laughed Dave nervously.
“No, we started this together. We go in together.”
“All right,” Dave agreed. “On the count of three.”
Doug closed his eyes. “Okay. One.”
Dave clenched his fists tight enough to draw blood from his palms. “Two.”
“THREE!!!” They screamed at the top of their lungs and ran into the trees as fast as they could. Low growths clawed at their clothes, but they didn’t slow down. Doug could hear the screaming like one long roaring sound pouring into his ears. But it was distant, like someone else was doing it. It was mixing with the wind. Doug felt the air rushing into his eyes. It made him cry. He could feel his heart beating — pulsing in his forehead harder and harder. Streaks of red exploded in his eyes, but Doug didn’t slow down. He dared not slow down. Now his breath was beginning to catch in his throat. He wanted to cough or throw up and most of all stop the pounding in his head. Doug tried to grab air each time a foot hit the ground, but it was too much, too fast. Shadows were forming at the edges of his perception. He was having an asthma attach. Doug felt his chest tighten against the fabric of his shirt. His long sleeves were flapping like wings in the wind. Doug tripped over his feet and lost his shoes, but managed to keep running. The muscles of his legs were turning to rubber. Soon they wouldn’t be able to support him at all. But Doug kept on running. Right on running until a circle of light was finally able to catch up with him.
The surface beneath his feet melted and Doug fell forward, skinning both his palms on the brown tile. Doug looked up an around. Two rows of vinyl booths wrapped around the room and straight ahead was a counter. It was a restaurant of sorts; it seemed familiar. Doug stood up and felt the cold touch of the tile beneath his bare feet. He looked down. His jeans were rumpled and much too large and his shirt hung down to his knees. Doug felt his scalp and surprised by hair. Long thick bangs touched his eyebrows. And his face was different too. It felt smoother with no trace of beard.
Fragments of conversations filled the room, but Doug couldn’t seem to follow any of it. He walked past the tables and the texture of the sound changed; like stereo only better. More like ghosts. The talking came from the booths. Doug could even pinpoint the voices sitting two or three feet above the seats. But there was no one there. Doug looked out the wide front windows, past the parked cars and the “BIG BOY” sign. There was no traffic to be seen, but he could hear cars zooming past.
“Ghost cars,” someone said. Doug jumped before he realized the voice had been his. “My voice…” he spoke aloud. Higher pitched and much thinner than he was used to, but it was familiar. Everything was coming back. All his memories, and now his voice and his body.
“HEY, CHARLIE! THINK SOMEONE’S LOOKING FOR YOU!” Doug whirled around, his clothes following an instant behind him. A crushed box of Winston’s sat on the counter next to an ashtray full of butts. On the other side was a bottomless cup of coffee. Black. Doug could smell it. In the middle was an old man hunched over the counter. He wore an old plaid coat made of some rough fabric and a black and navy baseball cap with the General Motors logo embossed on the front. Doug stood speechless, his mouth hanging open with nothing able to come out.
“Oh my God,” he finally managed to whisper.
The man turned his head. Tufts of gray hair stuck straight out from the ears, but they didn’t cover the hearing aids wrapped over them like little beige helmets. His cheeks were long and hung over his mouth like a permanent frown and his nose was bent in three places. Yet the face was kind. His eyes were clear and blue. And the mouth smiled — revealing no upper teeth. Doug trembled in his tracks.
The blue eyes lit up and Grandpa patted the stool next to him with a flat palm covered in yellow calluses. Doug felt his feet taking him towards the counter. He was not in control. All of this was too old — or too new — or whatever… Doug was in shock. And yet, part of him realized he’d seen this place before.
Doug sat on the stool, spinning once around to make sure it worked. His pants brushed the floor, but his legs kicked back and forth about a foot higher up. The backs of his heels knocked against the metal support post, making a hollow tone like a tuning fork. Grandpa sat with one elbow on the counter and rubbed his face with his hand. Doug did the same. There was a donut — strawberry frosted — and a glass of milk in front of him. He felt his stomach growling. He hadn’t eaten since… he couldn’t remember how long. The milk was cold and made the bridge of his nose hurt as he gulped it with large pieces of donut.
“Gettin’ purty big,” said Grandpa in his lovably gruff voice. “Purty soon be as big as your ol’ Grandpa.” He took a few sips of coffee, but Doug noticed the level didn’t change. He looked at his own glass. The milk still rose to the rim. He took another donut from his plate — this one vanilla frosted with little colored sprinkles. How long had it been since he had seen Grandpa? The funeral, of course, but that didn’t count. Doug had touched the thing in the coffin and knew it wasn’t really Grandpa. It was hard and cold and smelled funny. Besides Grandpa never wore makeup. It was like a dummy in a store.
That had been the start of the great games. His parents floated around the house and treated him like he wasn’t there. He could stay out all night and they wouldn’t care. They didn’t care. He and Dave could stay out all night if they wanted while their parents could only think of people who no longer needed them. The games had gotten longer and longer and the heat and humidity rose through the summer. A permanent haze hung over the neighborhood by July and the heat made the street ripple even at night. In the forest preserve it was cooler, but still hazy. The last night, he and Dave had fought in the haze; arguing over who the man was. Doug could plainly see it was his grandpa, but Dave thought it was his older brother Donny — which was crazy. Donny had died that summer in Vietnam.
Grandpa put an arm around him. “Gotta big job coming up. I’m gonna need some help again.” Doug just stared. His biggest thrill was going on a job with Grandpa. When he was a kid they had driven around the summer in his ancient pickup truck, crawling deep inside buildings and houses, working with the wires and switches Doug didn’t quite understand except to know to stay away. It was dangerous, but so much fun. Dodging the wires that smelled like electricity; Doug loved the taste of ozone tingling on his tongue. He looked into Grandpa’s eyes, waiting — no, praying for the question to be asked.
“You wanna come along and help ol’ Grandpa?”
Doug sucked in a breath. Part of him shouted in delight. Part of him wanted to say yes. This was what he wanted again, more than anything else. Doug turned to look out the windows and could see the dusty blue pickup truck sitting in the parking lot with the familiar red tool box lying in the bed. The rear view mirror hung crooked in the cab, a bit of ancient duct tape hanging from the stem. The ashtray was no doubt open and full with the butts of crumpled cigarettes ready to belch up a cloud of ash rivaling any volcano whenever Grandpa hit a bump. It was all so clear. Doug could see himself in the cab now, sitting with his face out the window, smiling into the wind. The rumbling of the engine only matched by the screechy sound of the AM radio. That’s the way the jobs had been. Doug could remember now. They had driven together to the buildings which grew out of the ground like trees. Doug had been able to crawl around inside holding wires of pure light.
No, that wasn’t right. The memories of the last trip were muddled. Tools and gauges that Doug couldn’t describe, much less understand. The switches in the truck that hadn’t been there before. Something was wrong. Doug turned to look at the pickup truck again. It was the same as it had been, right down to the flakes of rust framing the CRAFTSMAN logo on the tool box in the bed. The details. He could see too much. Doug was sitting on a stool looking through a window out into a parking lot at a truck more than fifty feet away. And he could see the rust. It’s like a Flemish painting, he thought to himself. Part of him didn’t understand the reference. But Doug squinted his eyes to filter out the light of the sun and could make out the molecules dancing arrythmically throughout everything. He glanced up at the sky and could feel the sunlight splitting down into its component colors.
He sighed. “It should be bluer, shouldn’t it?”
And that was that. Grandpa sighed and looked down into his coffee. Doug’s feet touched the floor. He brushed his head, but the hair had receded. His glass was empty and only crumbs remained on the plate. Grandpa picked up the check and stood up. Doug looked down at the old man.
“Ol’ Grandpa’s boy… getting so smart,” he said looking up at Doug. “Be goin’ to college one of these days.” Doug smiled and felt tears running down his face.
“I graduated, Grandpa,” he croaked. “Ten years… I’m a teacher now.” Grandpa’s eyes welled up with a clear film. He wiped them with a crumpled cloth and sniffed.
“I’m awful proud of you.”
The police found Doug wandering around the edge of the woods; his hands were bleeding and his shoes were gone. They thought he was one of the many homeless wandering the area until one officer found his wallet with his license. They called his home and an hour later, Marion arrived with the kids in tow. Doug saw her coming and met her in the hallway, burying his face in her soft smell of her hair.
“You weren’t home,” she cried into his shoulder. “Your car was still in the lot and you left the patio door open. I didn’t know what had happened to you.” She pulled away from him a moment. “How did you get here?”
Doug looked at her, surprised. “I don’t remember,” he stated finally.
Marion drove home. Doug was in a thoughtful mood; besides he still had no shoes. Laura and Charlie sat quietly in the backseat. Occasionally one would try to goad the other into trying something. Neither succeeded.
The phone was ringing when they got home. Laura tried to reach it first, but Doug beat her to it.
A boy’s voice said no and asked if Laura was there. Doug handed her the phone with a sinking feeling in his gut.
Marion put an arm around his middle. “Are you okay?” she asked.
“I feel old.”
She smiled and nuzzled his arm. “Who’s Dave?”
Doug thought a moment. “I don’t know,” he replied truthfully.