“Off the Record” – Lin Rice

I was hunched over my kitchen table, rolling cigarettes, when the Help Wanted ad shouted up at me. ‘Experienced Interviewer Needed IMMEDIATELY.’

I picked off the shreds of stale pipe tobacco stuck to my nail polish and took a closer look. The ad was out of place in my hometown paper. I’d been absently scanning the ‘Your Right to Know’ section, taking in the names of old classmates who were getting married (or had been busted for domestic abuse) and was surprised to see something of genuine interest. “Interviewer needed IMMEDIATELY in the Southeastern Ohio region to conduct and record interviews. English speakers only. Must have Internet connection and own transportation. $1K per completed interview; half up front. Send inquiries to Jodi@haveubeenabducted.org.”

I blinked at the number following the dollar sign. These too-good-to-be-true offers were a dime a dozen, but it was unusual to see one in actual newsprint. And for there to be a concrete payment amount, instead of the typical ‘Massive earning potential!’ hook.

How quaint.

I glanced at my old clunker of a laptop, hating myself for even considering it. The computer was nestled among a growing pile of neatly stacked, unopened bills. I might not have been able to pay them, but I could sure as hell organize the things.

“Rube,” I said, and reached for the laptop.

I lit one of the home-rolled smokes while waiting for the computer to cough to life. The cigarette tasted like something you’d find in last year’s winter coat, but at least it did the trick, and a whole bag of the generic pipe tobacco cost less than a single pack of cowboy killers. I’d save more money if I just stopped altogether, but my mama didn’t raise me to be a quitter.

A quick scan of the ad’s website did little to encourage me. Staring back at me was a mish-mash of topics you’d hear about on one of those late night, tin-foil-hat radio shows: Bigfoot, out-of-body experiences, men in black, some creepy article on the phenomenon of black-eyed kids, and even a handful of low-res photos claiming to be evidence of lizard people. Whoever had shot the pictures had at least angled the camera so the zippers wouldn’t show.

The words “Have You Been ABDUCTED???” were scrawled across the top of the page in a quivery font. I took another drag and clicked through, ending up on a stylized map of the U.S., digital thumbtacks poked into dozens of small towns around the country, with smaller print describing the details of various UFO abduction cases.

I could see where this was going. But short of editing a few library newsletters and a disastrous tutoring session with some rich brat who was flunking English, my billable hours had dried up.

I pulled up my email. Aside from a few offers that made it through my spam filter and yet another dinner invite from my old co-worker, Paul, the box was empty. I fired off an email to the address listed on Jodi’s site, resumé attached, and leaned back to think depressing thoughts.

A response pinged my inbox before my back touched the chair.

Thanks so much for your interest, the message stated in Papyrus font, the letters hunter green. Could we please speak ‘in person?’ I’m a terribly wretched typist. Best, Jodi

A link followed the message; it must have been an auto-reply.

I clicked on the URL, expecting a long wait as my old laptop limped into action. To my surprise, a video conferencing window popped up immediately. Staring at me through the screen was a hoot owl of a woman, her magnified eyes confused behind a pair of coke-bottle glasses.

I yelped and slammed the screen shut. I shot out of my chair and ran to the bedroom for a bra, pulling my hair back as I went.

Settling back into my chair, I peeked under the laptop screen. The woman was still there, eyes larger than before.

“Sorry about that,” I said, fastening my shirt’s top button. “You caught me getting ready for bed. It’s almost three in the morning here.”

“Oh that’s quite alright, dear, nothing I haven’t seen before.” The woman’s voice had a soft lilt to it, something that made me think of the grown-ups on Sesame Street.

Her face leaned in to fill my screen, eyes blinking rapidly. “I was just expecting Mr. Mitchell, is all. Would he be available?”

“I’m Anderson Mitchell,” I said, going into the routine for the millionth time. “You can call me Anse. Don’t worry; it happens a lot. All of the firstborns in the family end up with it.”

“Oh, but I love it!” she said, the audio crackling in my speakers. “You’re an old soul, I can see it already.”

I fought the urge to roll my eyes.

“I saw your ad in the paper. You’re Jodi, I assume?”

The woman cocked her head to the side, as if she was listening to something off camera. I tapped the volume button on the keyboard and made to repeat myself, but she spoke first.

“Yes, of course,” she said. “I’m Jodi McTaggert, from the Sacred Constellation Project. You’ve heard of the SCP, I assume?”

If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.

Jodi tapped her thin lips with a lacquered nail. “That’s alright, I suppose,” she said. “Objectivity is what I’m after, and your resume is quite impressive. My apologies for taking so long to respond, by the way—I don’t keep clocks in my house. They stifle the soul, as I’m sure you know.”

I frowned. I’d noticed her ad in the paper less than five minutes ago, and she was apologizing for being slow to reply? I wasn’t sure precisely how this woman was medicated, but her idea of time seemed somewhat skewed.

“What sort of services do you need?” I said. “Your ad didn’t go into much detail.”

Jodi tittered, her glasses sliding off her nose. “Right to the point, that’s good, dear. It’s a simple task, really, but I’ve got a number of irons in the fire, and my hay fever is simply atrocious this time of—”

“And that’s where I come in?” This was starting to feel familiar. People looking for free work tend to bury the lede.

Jodi didn’t break stride.

“Precisely,” she said, pushing her glasses back. “I’m putting together a new compendium of abduction cases. Missing time, sub-dermal implants, mental suggestions…it’s all quite exciting. It simply kills me to miss the Ohio Valley, I have so many theories on the Grassman, and don’t get me started on Point Pleasant.”

“Look Jodi, I don’t know if—”

“In any event, I need a local, someone who speaks the language, as it were. Someone who can sit down with potential sources, get them talking, and record the whole thing for me. Once you’re done you’ll send the file to me, and I’ll take care of the wordsmithing. I have the contact information and the list of questions all ready to send you. Oh, and your name will appear in the book’s acknowledgments, of course.”

There it was. “Your ad mentioned a set price, with half up front.”

Jodi frowned. “Well of course dear, I told you I’m with the SCP. We’re a serious operation. Check your email, you’ll see.”

I switched windows. A new message waited in my inbox, the address an ungodly long string of numbers and symbols. My hand paused over the mouse.

“Go ahead, it won’t bite,” Jodi said. I clicked the link. Again the old clunker jumped to light speed, and a command prompt window blinked open. A program kicked in, and green numbers flowed down the screen like something out of a Wachowskis flick. The command prompt closed, and my browser opened to my Paypal account.

Including the impressive funds already in my possession, there was exactly $514.72 in the account.

I’d worry about how Jodi pulled that stunt later. For now, money on the barrel was good enough for me. Clicking, I filled the laptop’s window with Jodi’s beautiful face.

“Lady, you’ve got yourself a reporter.”

I slammed the screen shut before she could reply. I pushed myself away from the table, and gloated at the stack of bills.

It was time to work.

I dialed the number for Mrs. Jenkins, the first interview subject, on the drive to Columbus. When I’d signed for the package delivered at my door that morning and ripped open the heavy cardboard, I’d been less than pleased to discover a nearly three-hour drive waiting for me. Still, the money was worth it, so I’d completely topped off my old pickup’s gas tank for the first time in months, and headed toward the big city.

“Hello, Mrs. Jenkins? I was hoping we could sit down and I could ask you a few questions about your abduction,” I said into the phone.

A sleepy voice answered. “It’s so early. Can’t we do this in the afternoon?”

“Don’t worry, ma’am, I’ve got a long drive ahead of me. I won’t be there until the afternoon anyway.”

I heard some dishes rattle in the background, and Mrs. Jenkins passed me some groggy instructions on how to pass the gate of her home owners’ association.

“Sounds good. I’ll see you at three.”

I hung up the phone and squeezed the steering wheel until my knuckles hurt. I’d left the city to get away from this exact thing—interviewing entitled suburbanites who couldn’t make it through a conversation without invoking the sacred words property values at least a dozen times. If she was on the damned zoning commission I was turning straight around—screw the extra five hundred.

I barreled along the straight shot of Interstate 70, and eventually the Columbus cityscape materialized on the hazy summer horizon. I followed the outer belt toward Mrs. Jenkins’s suburb, flipping off my old company’s shiny new glass building as I passed it. Exiting on the north side and working my way through a maze of cul-de-sacs and roundabouts, I had to check my directions three times before I ended up at the right neighborhood. For as much time as I’d spent in the suburbs, I still got turned around every time I ventured into them.

The surveillance camera at the wrought-iron gate to Mrs. Jenkins’s neighborhood eyed my four-wheel-drive suspiciously, but I had the password, baby.

I cruised around until I found the right address, and pulled into the driveway of a spacious Cape Cod, complete with white picket fence and meticulous landscaping. I rang the bell, and a tall, middle-aged woman in a silk house robe greeted me, a small pack of those designer mixed-breed dogs yipping around her ankles.

We exchanged pleasantries, and she ushered me into the house. “Please excuse my mess,” she said, leading me into a study. “Frank’s been gone, and he’s always such a dear about cleaning up after the little ones.”

I dropped my bag onto a couch and marveled at my surroundings. It was like someone had transplanted the entire Area 51 gift shop from Roswell to Central Ohio.

An entire army of little green men salt shakers mustered on one mantel, next to a plastic statue of a classic flying saucer beaming up a dairy cow. A drawing pad sat open on the coffee table, displaying a clumsy effort at capturing a bug-eyed alien’s likeness. In a frame on the wall was a copy of Mulder’s “I Want to Believe” poster from The X-Files.

Oh boy.

Mrs. Jenkins shooed the dogs from the room, and sat opposite from me in an oversized armchair. She pulled one of those days-of-the-week pill carriers from the table drawer next to her, and tapped out a handful.

“It’s so nice of you to come and see me,” she said, pouring a glass of water from a pitcher on the table. “Most people think I’m some kind of a kook. Can you believe it?”

“The SCP is a serious operation,” I said, pulling straight from the script. I pulled out my digital recorder and placed it on the table. Hopefully I could finish this up fast, before I was beamed up myself.

Mrs. Jenkins tossed back her pills and sat back in her chair with a contented sigh. I could actually see her pupils dilate.

“Oh don’t mind me,” she said. “It’s my prescriptions. I used to have dreadful seizures, but the pills keep them in check. And I won’t complain that they seem to make everything just a little more fabulous. But don’t worry, I won’t wig out on you!” She laughed, a hand covering her mouth.

“That’s quite alright,” I said. “But why don’t we get started? First off, could you describe the nature of your abduction?”

Mrs. Jenkins nodded, leaning in. “It was all thanks to Dr. Aubuchon. Lovely young woman—she’s the best psychologist in France, I’m told. Well, after she helped me get over my seizures, the psychic barriers in my mind were finally lowered. That’s when the grays first began their communication.”

I bet they did. I moved on.

“And how did they communicate with you?”

Mrs. Jenkins tapped her jaw. “It was quite simple. They’ve got people everywhere, you really wouldn’t believe it. My dentist adjusted my partials, and I began picking up their signal from out in space. It was all quite exciting. They needed more of us to help pave the way for first contact, you see. To let the human race know that they’re our friends, and that they’re going to save our planet. It’s so wonderful!”

“I’m sure it was,” I said, eyes staying on my checklist. I felt my initial disdain for Mrs. Jenkins slip away. This woman wasn’t trying to scam anyone. Meds could do all sorts of strange things to a person’s mind. I’m sure Mrs. Jenkins received her fair share of derision, and there was no need for me to jump on top of the pile.

I mustered as friendly a smile as I could manage. “Have you been contacted by any representatives of the government?”

Mrs. Jenkins frowned, a finger on her chin. “Well, the postman seems kind of suspicious. He gives me the strangest looks whenever I sign for a package. But I’ve followed my orders—we’re not to speak with the government about the grays’ plans. They’re afraid of intergalactic war, you see.”

“Third question—have you told any family or friends about your experience?”

“Well, just the folks on the message boards, of course. There’s quite a growing community on the Internet,” she said. “And Frank’s up there with them right now.”

I paused. “Excuse me?”

She gave me an indulgent smile. “Yes, for about a week now. He went to Dr. Aubuchon’s to pick up my prescriptions—he’s always been such a dear about that, swinging by her office day or night to save me the trip. I never even have to ask him! Anyway, they beamed him up right there in her parking lot. Dr. Aubuchon told me the whole thing over the phone—I could hear the wind rushing in the background and everything. It was all very exciting.”

I didn’t have the heart to tell her it was more likely that Frank was shacked up in a cheap motel with the good doctor. If that was the case, she was better off without him.

Only one question left. I stared down at the paper, confused. Some kind of typo? It’s your money, Jodi, I thought, and went ahead.

“Tell me, Mrs. Jenkins—what’s the difference between the lightning and the lightning bug?”

She looked at me quizzically. “Excuse me?”

I repeated the question.

“Well, I guess a few million volts, dear.” She began to laugh.

Jodi never said that the answers to her questions had to be good. The checklist complete, I packed up my gear, thanked Mrs. Jenkins for her time, and headed for the door.

“Won’t you stay?” she asked behind me. “Frank’s supposed to be back any time now. I’m sure he’s had an amazing experience.”

“I’m certain he has,” I said, nudging one of her yapping dogs out of the way. Mrs. Jenkins waved from the doorway as I slammed the pick-up into gear and got the hell out of suburbia.

My phone buzzed on the way back. I’d uploaded the audio at a coffee shop around the corner from the True Believer’s house, and half expected the message to be an alert of the remaining funds being dumped into my account. No such luck.

“How’s it going, JT,” I said into the receiver.

“Where are you, sis?” the voice drawled from the other end. “I stopped by your place, but you weren’t home.”

“Big city for the day. Picked up a new gig. Quick and easy.”

JT perked up. “That’s great, Anse. You should pick me up one of those Hound Dog’s pizzas on your way.”

I smiled. “Too late, I’m halfway back. What’s up?”

He paused. “Same as before. The appeal’s been held up, and Larry needs more money. You know how it is.”

“You’re sure he needs more money? He’s not just saying that?”

“Come on, Anse—Larry’s a good guy. You said so yourself.”

JT had a good heart, but he’d never met a snake oil salesman he didn’t like. His last ‘lawyer’ had nearly bankrupted him.

“What happened to the last check I gave you?” I said, juggling the receiver. “That should have covered it.”

There was a pause from the other end. When JT finally spoke, the playful tone had evaporated from his voice.

“Peggy’s car needed new brakes,” he said. “A new window, too, after that time she went off the road. Nearly cleaned me out.”

I could feel the bile rising in my stomach. “Why the hell did you have to pay for it? That drunk bitch needs to—”

“She ain’t gonna take care of it herself, you know as well as I do,” JT said. “And I’m not letting her drive Ava around in a car that’s not safe.”

I let out a sigh; I wouldn’t argue with JT on that one, at least.

“I know you’ve had it tough lately, I just have to win this case, is all…Ava needs to be with me,” JT said.

“I hear you. Turns out this new gig might just help with that.”

You would have thought it was Christmas. “You’re my hero, Anse,” JT said. “Ava’s, too.”

“Love you, too.” I hung up, and at the next red light, I checked my Paypal account.

Nothing.

The balance was the same when I got home, and three glasses of wine didn’t seem to have an effect on it, either. It wouldn’t have been a big deal for any other client, but considering how fast Jodi had been with the advance, I was getting twitchy.

I poured another glass, then fired off a short email. Nothing mean, mind you, or desperate. Just something to remind her I was still kicking.

Just like before, the reply pinged back almost instantly. I clicked the link, and like clockwork, Jodi’s squinting face filled my screen.

“Hello dear,” she said, her voice crackling with static. A bandage was visible on her cheek, wrapping under her glasses to cover one eye.

“Are you alright?” I asked. Jodi touched her face and flinched at the contact.

“No need to worry about me, dear. As they say, occupational hazard.” Jodi raised a steaming mug and sipped gingerly. “How may I help you?”

I paused, not sure what to say.

“Well I was just wondering if you’d had a chance to listen to the interview.”

Jodi set the mug down. When the china touched her coffee table, the hiss of feedback crackled through my speakers and the screen blurred into a cloud of pixels.

“I’m afraid I have,” she said when the image cleared. “I thought I had been clear on what was required, dear. I don’t believe I can compensate you for what you handed over.”

Pinot noir shot out of my nose.“What do you mean? I drove halfway across the state, and I asked every question from the list. Even the ones that didn’t make sense.”

“Yes dear, but don’t you remember what I asked for?” Jodi paused to sip at her mug.

“Someone who speaks the language, as it were. I need you to get the sources to really open up to you.”

“And I did just that,” I said. “Did you not hear her telling me about her husband? That was most decidedly off-script.”

“SCP already knew all about that,” Jodi said. “I need you to go deeper, to get me more. I’m sure you understand.”

I wanted to stick my hands through the screen and wring Jodi’s chubby neck. Instead I thought about my niece, and bit my tongue.

“Give me another shot at it,” I said. “Now that I’ve got one under my belt, I know exactly what you need.”

Jodi examined me with her good eye.

“Do you think you’re up to it, dear? The SCP is—”

“A serious operation. I know. So am I. I’ll do exactly what you ask, but we need to be clear on payment this time.”

The screen pixelated again, and Jodi’s voice sounded like a robot through the feedback.

“Alright then. I’ll have another assignment ready for you tomorrow. But you really need to knock this one out of the park, dear—I’ve tried this abductee already, and he didn’t seem all that friendly. Finish this assignment, and you’ll be paid in full, including the remaining five hundred from the first one.”

I hesitated, but went ahead with the question that had been eating at me.

“Jodi, there’s something else,” I said. “Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate how quickly you’ve been responding to me, but wow. You’ve even got my computer perking up. What’s the deal?”

Jodi laughed. “You’ve noticed that, I see. Well, the SCP places a lot of importance on making sure our technology is bleeding edge. We’ve got to keep up appearances for anyone who might be listening in, don’t we?”

She raised her eyebrows and jabbed a finger toward the sky.

“Don’t let it concern you,” she continued. “Our network is mostly automated at this point. And as you can tell, I like to remain reachable at all times. We’ve got a very important mission. Anyway, must run. Good luck!”

The image faded to black, and my computer went through the crawl of symbols again. I pulled up my Paypal account to see a new deposit of $47.13—the exact amount I’d spent on gas getting to Columbus and back.

Jodi’s hacker tricks were starting to concern me, but for the moment I didn’t have any ideas. JT needed money fast, and it’s not like my phone was ringing off the hook otherwise. She’d better not have put any weird alien spyware crap on my hard drive.

“You’d better be worth it, cat lady,” I said out loud, and finished my glass of wine.

Waiting on Jodi’s package the next morning, I killed time with a little research of my own. I called up my former co-worker Paul, a young business reporter with some impressive computer skills. I asked him to dig up whatever he could find on the Sacred Constellation Project. He promised to have a full profile for me by the end of the day, in exchange for drinks next weekend. What the hell—a little social interaction wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world, and I felt bad about ignoring his emails.

It was late afternoon before the package arrived, and I ripped it open with determination. Inside was a black and white picture of an older man in a Carhartt jacket who bore a surprising resemblance to Neil Young. The picture had obviously been taken with a telephoto lens. Printed along the bottom of the photo was the name Karl Donegan. Beneath the picture was a topographical map, a red circle scrawled in one corner.

This guy really was off the beaten path, and that’s coming from someone who grew up in Appalachia.

I grabbed my shoulder bag and checked to make sure my Ruger SP101 was easy to reach. I didn’t expect to need it, but the solid heft of the .357 Magnum made me a little more comfortable at the thought of pestering a good old boy on his own property.

I headed down Route 78, winding through parts of the national forest as I moved toward the spot marked on my map. Asphalt turned to gravel, which turned to dirt. Eventually I was coaxing the pick-up down a road just wide enough for it, with branches clicking off the side mirrors. Grass grew in a strip as high as the bumper between the two wheel ruts.

After a while I turned off the radio, and just listened as the whine of the highway faded into the drone of cicadas and the squeaks of evening bats. Sometimes I missed the life I’d left in the city—but not on evenings like this.

The path ended at the edge of a broad clearing. The field rose gently into a small hill, with an old but well-kept trailer on top. A small outbuilding stood to the left of the trailer, and I could just see a pair of goats milling around inside it.

A length of cable, spray-painted blaze orange, marked the boundary between forest and field. Secured to two large oaks on either side of the path, a neatly printed sign hung from the middle of the cable—No Trespassing.

I killed the engine and made a show of slamming the door when I climbed out. If he was home, I had no doubt that Mr. Donegan had heard me coming up the road—no need to make it seem I was sneaking up on him.

A tall figure emerged from the trailer, the screen door swinging shut behind him. He stood in silence on the porch, arms crossed.

“Mister Donegan?” I called. “May I come up?”

“I told you, them goats aren’t for sale.” His voice was a deep baritone, but it had some quiver in it. “Not unless you want to come up and mow the yard your own damned self.”

“I’m not here about the goats,” I said. “I was hoping we could talk for a little while. About your abduction.”

I could see him flinch from across the field. Before I could say anything else, he turned and stalked back inside the trailer, slamming the door behind him.

Well shit.

I leaned on my truck’s front bumper and lit up a home-rolled smoke. It wasn’t the first time someone slammed the door when I’d asked for an interview, but the goat thing was a first. I smoked in silence, trying to come up with a Plan B and listening to the first evening crickets.

I crushed out the cigarette and tossed the butt in the truck bed. I turned around to see Mr. Donegan stalking down the hill toward me. He wasn’t moving in a hurry. But a 12-gauge pump hung at his side, the gun balanced by its slide in the cup of his hand.

Without making any sudden moves, I made sure my pistol was resting in the top of my bag.

Mr. Donegan stopped at the gate, staring at my license plate.

“Thought I recognized your truck,” he said.

“You might have seen it around town,” I said carefully. “I’ve lived here most of my life.”

He nodded and looked up at me. His eyes were rheumy, but there was a clarity in them that bored into me.

“I figured I’d walk down and make sure I hadn’t heard you wrong,” he said slowly. “Most folks know better than to come around here lookin’ for a freak show.”

“That’s not what I’m about, Mister Donegan,” I said. “I got hired by a woman to record some interviews for her. Simple as that. I’m not looking to take advantage.”

His face clouded, and I almost pulled the pistol when he switched the shotgun from one hand to the other.

“What, for one of them alien books? The ones that take people like me, and make us out to be toothless hillbillies? Who sleep with our cousins, and chase little green men? If you don’t think that’s taking advantage, miss, then you don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“I’m not that kind of writer,” I said.

He examined me in the fading light. “If you’re helping someone use what happened to my family to turn a dime, then you sure as hell are.”

I didn’t have a comeback for that one. How many times had I railed about this kind of reporting when I still worked at the paper? How was this any different than sticking a camera in the face of a murder victim’s family for the evening news? This was the exact reason I’d left newspaper work in the first place.

If it bleeds, it leads.

I felt a knot growing in my stomach. I was going to make sure JT had what he needed to keep Ava, but not like this.

“I’m sorry for bothering you, Mister Donegan,” I said. “You’re right. I don’t know what I’m talking about.”

I tossed my bag through the truck’s open window and started to climb in.

“You’re Sam Mitchell’s granddaughter, ain’t ya,” Mr. Donegan said.

I paused. He had the shotgun cradled in the crook of his arm now, barrel pointed away from me. I nodded.

“I knew your grandpa,” he said. “Come on, I might as well offer you a cup of coffee, for his sake.”

He turned and headed toward the house. I slipped my phone and pistol into the pocket of my hooded sweatshirt, but left the digital recorder and notepad in the truck.

Mr. Donegan’s trailer was small, but well kept. A small television and one lamp provided most of the illumination in the living room, the flickering light of the TV reflecting off dozens of framed photos hanging on the walls. The majority of the frames were filled with photos of an attractive woman and a boy with curly blonde hair, their clothing and haircuts straight out of the seventies. The others were grainy photos of men in Army green, posing next to artillery pieces.

Mr. Donegan emerged from the kitchen, a steaming mug in each hand. I took one and nodded my thanks before sitting on the couch.

“I forgot to introduce myself,” I said.

“If you’re Sam’s granddaughter, I imagine your name’s Anse,” he said.

I smiled. “Word gets around, doesn’t it?”

“Seems to be the case,” he said. “It’s been a while since anyone came back here asking what you asked. I’d hoped most people had forgot. Not too many around left to remember, anyway.”

I set my mug on the coffee table next to me, next to a vase filled with lilacs. Their light scent almost masked the couch’s mustiness.

“My wife’s favorite,” he said.

“They’re lovely. Look, Mister Donegan, I’m sorry about earlier. You made me realize what I was doing, and that’s not the kind of person I am.”

I meant it.

“Call me Donny,” he said. “And I figured as much. I could see it in your face. You don’t look like one of those UFO chasers, anyway.”

“I’m starting to wonder,” I said. “It was just a job. No offense.”

He took a sip from his cup. “You should write a book on them, instead. See how they like it. Who hired you, anyway?”

“They’re called the Sacred Constellation Project…”

He snorted. “Oh yeah, I remember them. The ‘serious operation,’ as they like to say. They’ve pestered me a few times. I’ve always just fed ‘em a line of bull.”

He leaned forward, the mug cupped in his gnarled hands.

“They’re the real problem, and folks like them. Tell me—where do you stand on the whole thing?”

“Well, I’m a reporter, and I deal in facts,” I said. “I’ve never seen anything personally that I couldn’t explain. But the official story is rarely the full story, in my experience. I don’t know—I guess I haven’t thought about it much.”

He nodded. “That’s a good way to approach it. Problem is, just because there’s a thousand folks out there crying wolf, doesn’t mean that one of ‘em hasn’t seen one. It’s a pretty good way to discredit the honest ones, if you ask me—just have all the crazies start saying the same thing, and no one listens. Works in politics all the time.”

I laughed. That wasn’t very far from the truth.

“So you’ve seen a wolf, then?” I asked.

Mr. Donegan looked away, his lips pursed. “I didn’t say that. Never have. People believe what they want to believe.”

“But something had to have happened, if people like the SCP keep bothering you,” I said.
He set his mug down, hard. “I never said it was any damned aliens.”

We sat in silence for several minutes. I was too afraid to prompt him. But when I started to thank him for the coffee and leave, he began to speak softly, staring off.

“I still have no idea what happened. It’s been thirty-five years, and…I was out back, on the other side of the hill. It was summer time, just starting to get dark. Sue was on the back porch, yelling for us to come inside. This was back when we had the house, before I had this piece of crap hauled up here.

“Ronnie was little, but he was big enough to ride the pony I’d gotten him for his birthday. Sweet-tempered thing, that pony—didn’t mind him pulling on her ears, or anything like that. I was leading her around the yard with Ronnie riding, him laughing up a storm the whole time.”

“Sounds nice,” I said quietly.

He nodded. “It was. I don’t know how long we were at it, but I remember that it was getting hard to see. Just when I went to lift him off, the pony shied away from me, like something had spooked her. Like I said, she was usually a real mild pony. About the same time, Gracie started whining something terrible from the shed.”

“Your dog?”

“German Shepherd. That was strange too—she was always a real quiet dog. Never growled, hardly ever barked. But by the sounds she was making…you see animals act like that, you think they’re hearing or smelling something you can’t. Now that happens sometimes, especially if you live out here, and it’s nothing to make a thing out of. I just scooped up Ronnie and put him on my shoulders, and headed toward the house.”

“What about the pony?” I said. “Wouldn’t she have run away?”

He looked at me with one eye, a hint of a smile showing.

“You don’t have kids, do you.” It wasn’t a question. I shrugged.

“Anyway, I was almost to the house when this loud noise started up.

You ever heard a jet plane decelerate when it’s getting close to the airport? How all of a sudden, it slows down enough for the sound to catch up, and it’s like the plane’s right on top of you?”

I nodded.

“Imagine that, times ten. I remember Ronnie squealing in my ear, and his little hands nearly pulling my hair out. He…”

Mr. Donegan sat for a moment, rolling the empty mug in his hands. I rose and gently took it from him. I found the little pot on the kitchen counter and filled it, and brought it back to him. He nodded, but didn’t look up.

“I remember there being a light. Just soft at first, but it got bright real fast. So bright you could see the trees on the north ridgeline. For a moment it felt like the air was thicker, pressing down on me. Kind of like when you’re in an elevator. And that’s all I remember.”

I frowned. “Where was the light coming from?”

He shrugged.

“I don’t know. Everywhere. But it was just like that.” He snapped his fingers. “The next thing I remember was laying in the grass, down by the trees. I remember it was the flies that woke me up—they were buzzing all around my face, and the sun was at high noon. Couldn’t tell you how long I’d been laying there, but I felt like I had the worst hangover of my life. There was blood on my collar and crust in my nose—that’s what the flies were after.”

“How long had you been out?” I said.

He shook his head. “I don’t know. I was pretty thirsty. I…I made my way up to the house, to see if Sue and Ronnie were okay.”

I would have understood perfectly if Mr. Donegan had choked up at that point. I’d been a writer long enough to have an idea that the story didn’t have a happy ending. What I didn’t expect was the anger that began to fill his face, a slow burning rage that the years had failed to diminish.

“Before I made it to the house, I saw the pony in the back yard. For a second I was terrified that it was Ronnie—it had been tore up so bad that you could barely tell what it used to be. I ran in the house and yelled for them, but they weren’t there. Both of them…just gone. Gracie, too.

“I climbed over every inch of these woods, calling their names until it got dark. When I couldn’t see any more, I called up the Sheriff and we got a whole search party out here, probably three dozen guys with flashlights and dogs. We searched these hills for three goddamned days and nights. Nothing.”

I examined him from across the room. I’d interviewed a lot of people, and I could tell when someone was trying to fleece me. Everything Mr. Donegan was telling me was the truth as he saw it. A chill crawled up my back.

“There wasn’t any sign of them at all?” I said, carefully. “The dogs didn’t find anything?”

He shook his head. “A couple times we thought they’d found a trail. They’d follow it for a mile or so, and then just sit down and whine. Couldn’t get them to go any farther.

“I’ve never stopped looking. I called everyone I ever knew from when I was in the Army, guys in the FBI. Nothing. And once people like that SCP group of yours finally heard about it and started asking if I’d been beamed up, stuff like that, nobody official ever took me seriously again. I’ve never once made any claims other than what I’ve told you. It was them, not me.”

“What do you think happened?” I asked quietly.

“I lost my family, that’s what happened!

I cringed at the fury in his words. Donegan’s mug slipped from his trembling hands, and I flinched when it shattered on the floor.

“I’m—I’m sorry,” I said, moving to pick up the broken pieces.

Mr. Donegan held his face in his hands, shoulders shaking. I hesitantly put a hand on his arm.

“I believe you,” I said.

He looked up, reading my face. Finally he nodded.

“So is that what your Sacred Constellation Project wanted to know?” he said. “It’s not much of a fairy tale, I’ll tell you that.”

I went back to my place on the couch. “Something like that,” I said. “They gave me a list of questions to ask. Sort of leading questions, like how the aliens contacted you. And one that didn’t make any sense at all.”

He raised his eyebrows. “Like what?”

“Like, what’s the difference between the lightning and the lightning bug?”
Mr. Donegan grew very still as the words came out of my mouth.

His jaw went slack, and the rheumy eyes that had stared at me moments earlier went vacant.

“Mr. Donegan?” I said, rising.

The old man slowly got to his feet. He took a few steps toward the hall to my left, and began taking his clothes off.

He left his shirt, pants and shoes behind him as he walked down the hall. I started to follow, until I heard the squeak of a shower nozzle and the spray of water start in his bathroom. The temperature in the trailer rose noticeably after a few minutes, and I could hear the familiar sounds of someone showering.

I was too shocked to move. I pulled out my phone, deciding who to call. No signal.
The water turned off, and Mr. Donegan walked out of the bathroom. The same vacant look gripped his face, and the old man was pink and naked as the day he was born. Walking past me as if I wasn’t there, he opened the front door and stepped out into the night.

Not knowing what else to do, I followed him. I didn’t have to go far. I found the old man sitting cross-legged in the grass behind the trailer, hands on his knees, and staring up at the stars. He was mumbling under his breath, some words I couldn’t make out.

“Donny, are you okay?” I placed a hand on his shoulder, but he didn’t seem to register my presence. I shook him a time or two, and he finally looked up at me.

“It’s alright, I’ll bring him in when we’re done riding,” he said. “I think Ronnie likes his present.”

My throat tightened. Whatever had happened to Mr. Donegan thirty-five years ago, somehow Jodi’s question had put him in some sort of hypnotic state. If she had known that would happen, we were going to have words. More than words, actually.

I hurried back inside and returned with a blanket. Throwing it around Mr. Donegan, I did my best to get him to his feet and help him back inside. He didn’t fight me, but the old man never came out of his fantasy world. I turned down the quilts on the bed in his cramped bedroom, and helped him in. His head had barely touched the pillow before he began snoring.

I ran down the hill and fired up my truck, plowing over the underbrush as I turned it around on the narrow road. Whatever had been done to Mr. Donegan, odds were he needed a doctor. And if Jodi and her precious SCP had used me as their instrument to cause what had happened—so would she.

My phone finally picked up a signal when I pulled back onto the highway. Before I could dial the number for the local Sheriff, it started buzzing in my hand.

“Make it quick, Paul, I’m in a bit of a hurry,” I said into the receiver.

“Hey Anse, sorry to call so late.” His voice sounded tinny and far away. “Everything alright?”

“Right as rain,” I said, doing my best to avoid pot holes at top speed.

“This Sacred Constellation Project you put me on is one strange group,” he said. “I mean, they’re a legit publisher, with a couple dozen paranormal titles.”

“Apparently there’s a market for it,” I said. “What’s so strange, other than that?”

“Well, I started to dig into their financials that are on public record. I found out that they’re a subsidiary of that big government contractor you ran a story on last year. Know what I’m talking about?”

“Of course I do. What’s the connection?”

He paused. “I’m not sure. Believe it or not, no sooner had I pulled up their damn web site, my phone started ringing. It was a lawyer giving me the whole ‘cease and desist’ spiel. How the hell does that even—”

His voice dissolved into a series of clicks and scratches. Cursing, I pulled off the road to see what the problem was. I fiddled with the phone for a minute, then tried calling back.
“Paul?” I said when the line connected.

“This is Gregor Smith with the SCP, Ms. Mitchell,” a thin voice said. “Am I interrupting you?”

My jaw dropped. “I—how did you get on this line?”

“I believe you called me, Ms. Mitchell. Is there a problem?” His voice had almost no inflection.

I could feel my cheeks flush. “You bet your ass there’s a problem,” I said. “Where’s Jodi? I need to speak with her. Right now.”

“Ms. McTaggert is unavailable. Her instructions for you, shall I say, overstepped our parameters. I will be handling this account from now on. Are you ready for a new assignment? Your deliverable from Mr. Donegan was quite satisfactory.”

I nearly dropped the phone.

“What the hell are you talking about?” I shouted. “I didn’t record anything. And now the man’s possibly had some kind of a mental break, thanks to you. Is that what you were hoping for?”

“The microphone on your mobile device proved sufficient to capture the needed audio. Do not worry. Mr. Donegan will be properly taken care of.”

“If you touch him, you’ll pay for it.” The phone shook in my hand. “I don’t know what it is you’re doing, but I’ll find out. And so will every major news outlet in the country.”

There was a pause. “That would put you in breach of contract, Ms. Mitchell. I’m sure you wouldn’t want that.”

I flinched away as a high-pitched squeal burst from the phone. The line went dead.

The man’s words rang in my head. Mr. Donegan will be properly taken care of.

I slammed the truck in reverse and sped back onto the gravel road. I tried calling Paul back before I lost the signal.

“The number you have dialed is no longer in service,” the automated voice told me.

That wasn’t good. I tried 911.

“The number you have dialed…”

I shoved the phone back in my pocket, and reached for my pistol. Try to disconnect that.

I turned a corner in the narrow road, and my headlights broke into Mr. Donegan’s field. The knot rose in my throat again—the orange cable that had blocked the road was nowhere to be seen.

I didn’t slow down. Instead, I coaxed the truck straight up the hill to the trailer, bouncing in my seat the entire way. I stopped with the headlights trained on the front door, and left them on. Pistol in one hand, I jumped out of the truck, climbed the porch and threw open the door.

The trailer was empty.

I don’t mean there wasn’t anyone there—it was empty. All of Mr. Donegan’s furniture was gone, along with all of the photos and other mementos that had been on the walls. No curtains, no carpet. Nothing.

I went down the narrow hall, gun held in front of me. I called for Mr. Donegan, and was greeted by my own echo. His room was as bare as the rest of the trailer.

How could this be possible? I’d barely been gone an hour. I would have thought I was hallucinating, if it weren’t for the faint smell of lilacs. This was indeed Mr. Donegan’s trailer—at least, it had been.

Something moved through the beams of my headlights, throwing a long shadow on the wall.

“Hey!” I stepped hesitantly back into the living room, trying to keep my anger from losing its battle with the fear rising in my gut. The pistol shook in my hands. I peered out the door, blinking at the harsh headlights.

A boy stood on the porch. His hands were shoved in his pockets, and the hood of his sweatshirt was pulled up.

“What are you doing here?” The gun shook in my hands.

The boy looked up. He had rosy cheeks and a dimple in his chin like a million other little boys, but his eyes were completely black, just like the drawings in Mrs. Jenkins’ sketchpad.

“Can I come in?” the boy asked, his voice saccharine-sweet. “I’d really like to come in. Please?” I slammed the door as hard as I could. My feet tangled and I went down. I shoved myself across the floor as far from the door as I could, panting as the fear took control.

This couldn’t be happening.

The little boy’s face appeared in the window beside the door. He grinned, his mouth stretching unnaturally wide, and pale blonde curls slipped out from under his hood. Another silhouette came to stand beside him. Then another.

Pounding boomed through the room, and the flimsy trailer door rocked on its hinges.

My phone rang.

I tried to pull it out of my pocket with numb fingers, and dropped it just as the door splintered. The headlights cut through the room, blinding me.

The phone hit the ground and turned on, its screen illuminating the terrible faces as they descended on me.

My phone was ringing.

I frowned at the half-rolled cigarette in my hands. The stale shreds of tobacco were dead and dull in the afternoon sunlight that streamed through the window and over my kitchen table. I must have nodded off—my throat was dry as hell.

I guess it didn’t matter—the check for five hundred grand on the table meant I could damn well take a day off. Funny—it was more money than I’d earned in my entire life. This job had been…it had been…I was having trouble remembering exactly what it was that I had been paid to do.

The buzzing phone was making it hard to focus. I scooped it up and thumbed it on.

I couldn’t place it, but the cheery voice on the other end sounded familiar.

“Hello, Mrs. Mitchell?” she asked. “I was hoping I could ask you a few questions about your abduction.”

_

Thank you to Lin Rice for sharing the complete text of his story “Off the Record” for free on the web.  The complete book, Best of Ohio Short Stories: Volume 1, features seventeen additional stories.  Click here to find the book on Amazon.  E-books are also available from all major digital retailers, click here for links.

Lin Rice is a freelance writer and editor. A life-long Ohioan, Lin grew up in Monroe County before making his way to Columbus, by way of Athens. A recovering journalist, Lin is now trying his luck in the world of fiction—his first novel, The Remembering Glass, is currently in its second round of edits. He also posts the occasional rant at LinRice.com. Lin now lives in Central Ohio with his wife, their new son and a pack of half-feral cats.