Returning to the place of her youth was something Sam swore she'd never do. Yet as the wheels of her Subaru kicked up a plume of red dust along the parched Oklahoma roads, she considered how the lens of childhood had skewed her memory. Most people seemed to recall only the good of a place. Yet on the drive from Houston to her family's ancestral home, she'd whiled away the hours reliving the ache of growing up a square peg in a community of unaccommodating round holes.
Only now, as once familiar landmarks drifted past, did golden childhood memories come flowing back. Times she and her best friend, Gail, had skinny dipped in Sallisaw Creek, the Fourth of July evening spent drinking Boone's Farm apple wine and watching fireworks from the back of Jeb Stevens' pickup. She and Mary Whitaker doing each other's makeup on a sweltering Saturday night. She smiled reminiscing about old times and the thought that maybe not everything about her childhood had been bad.
Slowing to a stop, Sam cracked open her door and stepped from the car's cool interior into the blast furnace heat of a late August afternoon. After all these years, the rusted and bent cattle gate isolating her parents from the outside world hadn't changed a bit. The galvanized chain holding them in rattled hollowly to the earth as she released the lock's hasp and swung the groaning gate open. Although Dad hadn't run cattle in years, she eased the Subaru forward before climbing out to make certain the gate was closed, the chain secured behind her.
It had been almost a week since Mom's frantic call. "You've got to come home," she'd moaned. "Your father's in a bad place an' ... an' I don't know what ta do." Mom wouldn't provide details only saying Daddy was not himself. For a man who spent his Saturday evening at the lodge discussing how the niggers and wetbacks were conspiring to overthrow the country, not being himself left a lot of leeway.
Located in the oak laden hills outside Bunch, Oklahoma, the Moore farm had been in the family since Buford David Moore acquired it in the land run of 1891. The house Sam grew up in, a white wood-frame two story with faded yellow shutters and a green front door was built in 1908; on the exact spot where the original log shack had been reduced to ashes two years prior.
Chunks of gravel popped and crunched beneath her tires as she approached the house, then rounding the branches of a fat cedar, Sam spotted her mother rocking on the wide front porch. She wore a flowered farm dress with three wooden buttons and elbow length sleeves. Her mother's hair was still luxuriant, pulled into a flowing ponytail that bunched over one shoulder, but the once youthful glow was gone, the dark mahogany tresses replaced with shimmering gray.
Had she really been gone that long?
"Sam!" her mother exclaimed, grabbing the porches' peeled railing and pulling herself up. "I'm so happy you came." Her mother moved with the fervent stiffness of age, scurrying down the steps and across the gravel drive. In an instant, she was in Sam's arms, hot tears cascading down both their cheeks.
A dull ache swelled in Sam's heart at all the lost time. The years in which anger and pride prevented her from picking up the phone, from reaching out to the first person who'd truly loved and accepted her simply for who she was, a woman as much a victim of her father's hateful ignorance as Sam herself.
"I'm so sorry, Momma." Sam stepped back and snapped open her purse rummaging for a tissue. Her mother held up a pair of white napkins that fluttered in the breeze. A smile broke across both their faces as Sam took the napkin and laughed.
"You always was a crybaby," her mother said, dabbing at her own eyes.
"Well, I come by it naturally," Sam agreed, pulling her mother into another hug.
Her mother stepped back, eyes roaming from Sam's pink laced Nikes to her polka dotted blouse. Although Sam preferred dresses, especially in the summer, she wore jeans to avoid a fight with her father.
"You know," her mother said, reaching up and brushing away Sam's bangs. "You really are a beautiful woman."
"Thanks, Mom," she said shyly, an unexpected warmth rising in her cheeks.
Sam's eyes roamed the property for signs of her dad. A flock of chickens pecked and scurried before a ramshackle hen house while an old black hound lazed in the entry to their big red barn.
As if she needed further reminders of the myriad reason's she'd left, a spider the size of a child's hand scurried across the lawn and raced for the cover of weeds. The chickens caught sight of the movement with an almost comical uplifting of heads. Then the squawking, cackling horde sped across the hardpack soil. A big rooster snatched the tarantula into the air, snapping off a leg before the insect cartwheeled into the feathered mass of bodies and was devoured.
Distracted by the carnage, thoughts of her father's whereabouts returned when a metallic clank and a muffled curse drifted from the barn. Her mother laid a soft hand on Sam's wrist and drew her towards the house.
"Come," she said. "I think we should talk."
Despite years of torment growing up within those nicotine stained walls, Sam found a comforting predictability inside her parent's home. The aroma of fried potatoes and stale beer were as familiar and intimate as the threadbare couch and her father's duct-taped recliner.
Sam followed her mother into the kitchen where she was guided to a seat and offered a glass of iced tea and a plate of waxy cookies. In the sixteen years since leaving home, nothing had changed. The same yellowed linoleum curled beneath the foot of mother's avocado green stove; the picture of a crucified Jesus still occupied its place above the counter. Only the refrigerator was new. Not new in the sense of store-bought new, Dad would never allow that, but new in the way of the country poor. A functional piece of equipment cobbled together to serve until its usefulness was outlived and it joined the rusting pile of refuse stacked behind the barn. Sam wondered if her mother might not one day end up on that heap, when her youth was no more than memory and her ability to cook was gone.
"Thank you for comin'," her mother repeated. She dropped into a chair, her restless hands like a pair of gaunt animals twisting in her lap.
"Mom, what's going on?" Sam reached over and took her mother's hands and pressed them in her own. Sam was no stranger to her mother's fear. The timid fear she wore every day tiptoeing around her father's rules, the paralyzing fear when he stumbled home drunk and bellowed her name from the front porch. The sorrowful fear pooling in her eyes when Sam was a child, berated and beaten for being what she was. The fear in her mother's eyes was different today, a fear Sam had never seen.
"Your father's mind ain't right," she said at last, a fat tear plopping onto the table's scratched wooden surface. "He's been slippin' for years now, but the last month. Things have gotten ... well, a little crazy."
Sam's life had been bathed in theories vomited up by her father. Revelations on how Jews took over the films and media to overthrow our democracy. How immigrants and the coloreds promoted white genocide, and how homos and fags undermined the sanctity of marriage and church. In Sam's mind, a little crazy, was a mile marker her father passed long ago.
"Mom, I don't understand. Daddy's always held whack job ideas. How's he any different?"
"Because he's convinced an alien crashed on our land. He thinks they're spying on us, tryin' ta read our minds."
"When did this start?"
Her mother withdrew a pack of Marlboros from her pocket and tapped one out. The lighter's flame trembled as she puffed it to life and exhaled a cloud to the ceiling. "It started a month ago when we was sittin' on the porch watchin' the stars."
Despite a laundry list of faults, her father wasn't a total monster. As children, he'd taken she and her brother fishing. He helped care for the hatchling chicks every spring. But his favorite past time was gazing up at the night sky. Even now, Sam could name every constellation sailing through the Oklahoma night.
"You father seen it first," her mother said, "streakin' outta the North like a comet. It passed right over the house with a window rattlin' boom then disappeared over Honeycut hill." She took another drag a frown forming on her lips as she considered the growing length of ash. Rising from her seat, her mother grabbed a weathered ashtray from inside a counter drawer before continuing her story.
"I'm sure it landed miles off," she said, "but your father's convinced it crashed in the valley. The next day, he set off at dawn ta find it. 'Bout the time it was startin' ta get dark, he come trompin' inside covered in mud an' scratched from head ta toe, full of stories 'bout burned out trees an' flyin' spiders."
Her mother took another puff before grounding out the butt. "Ever since, he's been obsessed 'bout havin' someone search the north valley for him. He's convinced they got some kinda alien ship hid down there. That they got spider drones sneakin' 'round the property ... recordin' what we doin' an' sayin'." She rose stiffly and stepped to the back door, staring out the window for a long while. "He even called Sheriff Wagoner," she said at last. "Tried to convince him ta go out to the spot he says they are. Course the Sheriff wouldn't do it, which only made your father even more convinced somethin' was out there. Said the Sheriff was part of the cover-up."
"What about Billy?" Sam asked.
Her mother turned; eyes pooled with emotion. "You brother ain't called nor spoken with us in more'n twelve years. I didn't even know where he is."
Sam wasn't surprised. Although Billy hadn't faced the same challenges, their father's track record as a parent was less than stellar. "So, what's Daddy doing in the barn? Is he making something?"
Her mother tapped out another cigarette. "He's makin' a ladder so he can get down to whatever it is he thinks he found." She paused before lighting up. "Your father had a stroke four years aback an' cain't get around like he used ta. Doctor said that if doesn't slow down, he's on track for another."
"A stroke?" Sam said in surprise. "Why didn't you call?"
Her mother shrugged. "You know your father. He don't want no one ta know. Feels like it's a sign ah weakness."
The screen door groaned open and heavy boots clunked inside. "Woman, whose car is in the drive?"
Her mother's eyes went wide as she ground out the cigarette and fanned away the smoke. Everyone knew of her habit, even Daddy, but she always hid her habit to avoid a lecture.
"Wipe off your makeup, dear," her mother whispered. She wet the end of a dish towel and dropped it on the table. "He ain't gonna like it."
"It's Samuel," her mother called hustling out of the kitchen. "I told you he'd come."
Her father's face had thinned over the years, his cheeks shadowed with short gray stubble. His shoulders, somewhat sagged, were still broad and powerful beneath his sweat-stained tee shirt and faded blue coveralls. As he turned to consider her, his brows pulled together in a thicket.
"You dressin' early for Halloween?" He stepped to the fridge and took out a beer.
"Hello, Daddy. Nice to see you too."
He cracked open the beer; his Adam's apple bobbing as he eyed Sam over the lip of the can. With a loud "Ahhh," he set it down and leaned against the counter.
"Them tits real?" He lifted his cane and pointed to Sam's chest, "or they stuffed with socks like when you was a boy?"
"They're real enough," Sam growled. She could feel rage rise like a fever and spread across her cheeks.
Why'd she come? Nothing had changed.
With him, nothing would ever change. She kicked herself for allowing whatever sense of guilt or remorse or misguided loyalty had led her back.
"Well, tits or not," he said, "I guess you're the only one who'll listen. If nothin' else, at least you got guts. Unlike your worthless brother."
He picked up the beer and nodded towards the door. "Come on then," he said, "Daylights a-burnin'."
Sam wasn't sure why she followed, maybe from a forgotten sense of devotion, but that wasn't all. There was also a morbid sense of curiosity, an almost perverse yet guilty joy at seeing her father's humiliation. At the door, he paused, his eyes once more studying her. "Well, at least ya had sense enough ta wear somethin' practical, not one ah them foo-foo dresses you was always so taken with." He leaned forward and held the door open, the muscles of his arm stringy and thin beneath the liver-spotted skin. "Ladies first."
Halfway to the barn, he paused. "You know why you're here?"
Sam squinted in confusion. "Because Momma called and said you weren't well."
"That woman don't do nothin' less I tell her," he boasted.
Sam glanced over her shoulder. Her mother stood watching from the porch with her arms crossed and a tissue pressed to her mouth.
She'd been duped, tricked by the old man once again. Sam turned and stomped towards her car the gravel squelching angrily beneath her feet.
"Wait!" her father cried. "Don't go."
Sam spun angrily. "Why? Why should I do anything to help you?" She spat the words like a curse. "You're a hate-filled, manipulative old racist." Unbidden tears roiled down her cheeks. "If you think I'm gonna help, then ... then." Anger tangled the words in her mouth. Sam spun and continued to the car.
"Sam ,,, Samantha," his voice cracked. "Please."
She stopped. When had her father ever said 'please'? She couldn't remember a time. She wiped her eyes and turned. "What?"
He pointed past the house and out towards the woods. "They're out there, Samu ... Sam. I need someone else ta see, someone ta believe me. So I know I ain't crazy."
"Why don't you take her?" Sam turned and jabbed a finger towards the house.
"Your mother won't come. Too scared." He lowered his eyes, his bald pate glimmering in the yellow heat. "You're my last hope."
Sam puffed out her frustration. Why did she let him get to her? Why did she fall for his crap? Even now, recognizing it for what it was, she sighed and gave in. "Fine. I'll do it. Then I'm gone."
The old man's head rose, his lips parting into a gap-toothed grin. "Good, good," his head bobbed excitedly. "Let me grab some gear an' we'll get goin'."
He shuffled into the barn returning an instant later with an old canvas pack thrown over his shoulder. With a wave of his cane, he led them into the woods.
The forests surrounding the house were another misty facet of Sam's childhood she'd almost forgotten. The cool solitude found beneath the sun-speckled canopy, the flutter of bird wings and crunch of fallen leaves. Sweat beaded her brow and pooled along her back as they trudged ever deeper. Then crossing a weed-strewn clearing, Sam spotted a dark form scramble across the rocky earth. It was one of the many tarantulas populating the hills this time of year. In a heartbeat, her father unslung his pack and pulled a pistol. He aimed at the scurrying beast and fired. Dirt exploded beside the big arachnid and flung it in the air.
"Did ya see?" he called excitedly. "Did ya see how they fly?"
"It didn't fly, you blew the shit out of it with your gun." Sam shook her head. What did she expect? Simply because she'd been tricked, didn't change what her mother said. He really was losing it.
Scrambling between tumble down boulders and hillocks of loose scree, the ground began to descend. "We're almost there," he puffed. He leaned against a boulder and pointed out a pair of tarantulas basking atop a sandstone slab. "When you start seein' spiders, you know you're gettin' close."
The trail, if you could call it that, grew thin and steep. With a weak heart and blasted knees, any other man would have failed this trek, but if her father held one trait more tenaciously than his hatred, it was his power of will.
The downward path finally leveled and Sam found herself halfway along a steep-walled valley barely fifty yards across. Thick stands of oak, cottonwood, and cedar filled the basin floor and the tinkling song of water echoed along the sandstone walls. She'd forgotten this valley and its spring-fed stream. How it cascaded between the steep cliffs until it pooled in a wide clear pond at the valley's end.
"I cain't make it down to the pond no more," her father said, "A landslide destroyed the path in oh' six."
They stood atop a ten-foot ledge snugged against the valley wall. As it continued, the ledge shrank down to a three-foot wedge with a high red cliff on one side and a thirty-foot drop on the other. Fifty feet further, the path vanished beneath an unsettled mass of pebbles, scree, and loose earth. From there, it ramped sharply to the valley floor.
"It's right 'bout where the ledge ends that you can see it," her father said. "Go on up an' have yourself a look. Tell me then if I ain't crazy."
Sam edged closer, the trees below lush and thick. Further along the valley, she spotted the first signs of destruction. Tops of trees were sheared off or snapped in half while others lay charred and blackened. Sam lifted a hand to shield her eyes from the sun. Was there something beyond the trees? A shimmer of metal? It had to be the stream reflecting through the branches. She seemed to remember the stream as a slight trickle, especially in the summer, but she'd been gone a long while, things could have changed.
"You see it don't cha?" her father asked.
Sam started at his words almost having forgotten he was there.
"Could be water," she said. "Maybe a pool reflecting light."
"You know there ain't no pool," he said. "That stream don't pool up for another quarter mile. You been down there nuff times ta know."
Hands on knees, she stared down the valley. Her father was right. There was something, and it wasn't water. A downed plane? A chopper maybe? That would certainly explain the damage ... and the fire.
Sam straightened and faced her father. "Okay. There's definitely something. If you'd like, I'll go see what it is."
His face shown. "I knew it!" He clapped his hands with a loud pop. "You seen it didn't cha? You seen the ship."
"All I saw was something metallic," Sam admitted. "Maybe a plane. Could be a weather balloon."
"Phhhtt!" her father blew out a raspberry. "Like the Roswell weather balloon." He unslung his pack and rummaged through it eventually pulling out the gun he'd used earlier. Sam saw it was Pa Pa's old Model 1911. The gun grandfather carried during his tour in Vietnam.
"When you go down there," he said, "I want'cha ta carry this."
Growing up, Sam's father made sure she and her brother were well versed in the use of firearms. Only once, on her twelfth birthday, had she been allowed to fire Pa Pa's 1911. Daddy rarely brought it out and never let anyone handle it.
"That's Pa Pa's pistol." Sam stepped back, confused. "You never let anyone shoot Pa Pa's gun."
"I know." Couched in his palms, he held the weapon out. "If there's some kinda alien down there, I want you ta waste it. This here's the most reliable gun I got. It's never failed the family."
It had been a long while since Sam held a gun. She hefted the pistol and balanced it in her palm admiring its weight. "Okay." She verified the safety was on before stuffing it in her jeans.
"And these too." He produced two magazines loaded with bullets. These she stuffed in her back pocket.
As she turned to go, he stopped her with a touch. "Be careful," his voice barely a whisper.
Then squaring his shoulders, he met her eyes. "I mean ta say, put on your big boy pants. Somethin' happens down there, an' you're on your own. Ain't no way I can help. Not without killin' myself."
Descending to the valley floor was easier than Sam imagined. Crouched to avoid a fall, she slid down the loose rubble while a cascade of pebbles clattered and bounded beside her. In seconds she was down. Sam didn't relish the climb back up. Her new shoes were caked with dark red dust and her jeans were the same. With a sigh, she resigned her wardrobe to the trash bin and set off down the valley.
"I'll wait here," her father called.
Sam lifted an arm in an absentminded wave before ducking beneath a cedar branch and disappearing from her father's view.
"An' watch out for them spiders," his voice echoed. "They fly."
Yeah, flying spiders, Sam thought. The old man really has gone mad.
She followed the brook as it gurgled along the cliff walls, bunching in shallow pools before dribbling over the lips of minuscule falls and glittering like quicksilver among the moss-covered stones. Great stands of oaks stood interspersed among plump cedars and great hoary sided cottonwoods as a verdant carpet of grass ran like a path alongside the water's course. Sam followed the meandering trail ever deeper into the valley.
When she spotted spiders near the steam, Sam froze. There were three of them. Two were busy along the water's edge with something held between them. The third sat perched on a shattered and blackened branch a dozen feet away. Sam didn't care much for spiders, particularly the little black ones that found their way inside her closet. Tarantulas were a different matter. They were gross, sure, but harmless, and in a strange way, kind of neat. When she was seven, Sam even had one as a pet; until Daddy discovered it and crushed it in the yard.
Sam eased closer. When she did, the spider on the branch spun to face her. She watched with amazement as the creature lifted its forelegs and waved them in the air. As if on cue, the two near the water dropped their package and mirrored the leg lift of the first. All three faced her as sunlight drifted through the overhanging branches and scattered dappled shadows across the scene.
Yet there was something about these tarantulas she couldn't put her finger on, and not just the fact they were here. As a child, she'd never seen them in the valley. They preferred the drier rockier terrain in the craggy hills and fields further east. But that wasn't what nagged her. It was something else. Then it hit her; tarantulas are brown, these things were red; red as Oklahoma clay. And whenever the stippled sunlight hit them, their hind legs shimmered with a blueish sheen.
Sam pulled the pistol and flicked off the safety. She looked to the spiders then to the gun.
What am I doing? She thought. Being just like Daddy, that's what. Letting violence be the answer to everything.
"Get, go on, get." Sam hefted a stone and lobbed it towards the stream. The rock hit the water with a kerplunk sending up a geyser of spray.
In a flash of dazzling blue, the spiders shot into the air. Sam screamed and fell backwards. The gun went off in her hand. Heart hammering, she searched the sky for several shuddering breaths before dusting off her dirt-caked knees and pushing to her feet.
The spiders were gone.
What ... the hell ... was that? Sam sifted through the last seconds of memory trying to recall what had transpired. Because there was no way she'd just seen spiders fly. Things like that don't happen. Flying spiders don't exist.
The rock hit the branch. That was it. It hit the branch and flung them into the air. The flash of blue was sunlight glinting off the water. It made sense. It explained all the facts. If nothing else, it made more sense than flying spiders. Sam glanced up the valley and swallowed, heard the hard dry click in her throat.
No reason to get spooked, girl. Just see what the hell's up there and get out. Sam took her finger off the trigger and flicked on the safety.
Fifty yards further, she saw it.
Roughly the size of a semi-truck and egg-shaped in appearance, the gleaming craft was embedded in the earth. Its crushed nose, what portion could be seen above the bulldozed hill of dirt, was scorched black while shattered metal ribs jutted through the nose's mangled skin.
Towards the rear, a five-foot opening gaped like an open maw in an otherwise pristine and pearly surface. Sam was struck by a sudden, disturbing thought.
As much as she hated to admit it, her father was right.
Okay, Samantha. What to do? She sucked in a breath and slowly blew it out. This was some kind of experimental craft. An Air Force project gone awry. Like the old stealth bombers that generated so much UFO hoopla in the eighties. Which meant there was probably someone inside. Maybe hurt.
As she watched, a deeper shadow moved inside the darkness of the opening.
"Hello?" She stepped closer and peered inside. "Anyone there?"
The opening's lip was five feet above the ground. To get inside she'd have to climb. Sam pulled out her phone but at the bottom of a thirty-foot ravine in the middle of nowhere, there was no service. She stuffed the pistol in her belt and opened the flashlight app on her phone. Her mouth was dry, her heart pounded. Okay, you can do this. Sam grabbed the lip of the craft and hauled herself up.
Shining the light, revealed an oval space with maroon colored walls. It was empty except for a two-foot wide pedestal at the center. An icy blue light pulsed rhythmically from the pillar; its dull glow reflected on the uneven ceiling above.
Throwing both legs over the sill, she dropped inside. Except for a four-foot opening leading towards the craft's nose, the room curved in an unbroken line along the ship's exterior before circling back to form a thirty-foot oval.
"Anybody here? Is anybody hurt?"
The air stank of hot steel and fried circuits.
And something else.
An odd musky aroma she couldn't place.
The waist-high pillar at the room's center was smooth and cool to the touch; concave as if something rested there. Running in a horizontal line along both sides of the indention, were four deep holes as thick as her wrist. Sam bent to examine them. As she did, a sound like wind through autumn leaves rattled through the room.
Sam lifted her light.
The ceiling shimmered with the iridescent luster of vibrating wings. With hind legs raised to reveal vibrating dragonfly wings, spiders swarmed across the ceiling. By the hundreds, they wriggled in ecstatic fervor over a creature of nightmarish proportions. A bulbous eight-legged monstrosity, as large as a Halloween pumpkin, squatted at their center. It stared down at her with shimmering jewel eyes.
Then Sam drew her pistol and aimed.
Before she could fire, they sprang.
Wings filled the gloom with a high-pitched whine. They swirled and hummed. They tangled in her hair and alighted on her back, bounding once more into flight before she could slap them away. Panic threatened to consume her, but Sam was a veteran of fear. As she'd done so many times in the past, she closed her eyes.
She counted to three.
She'd faced fear before. In a bully's hurtful words and hard, unforgiving blows.
She'd faced fear before. In the staring looks of intolerant family and bent whispers of false friends.
She'd faced fear before. In the decision to become what she was not what she was told to be.
Sam opened her eyes, her fear caged.
Within the tornado of vibrant wings and chittering calls, she understood. She'd played this game of bravado before and recognized the terror which fueled it. Only this time, it was she who was the outsider. It was she who did the judging; she who examined a stranger's appearance and assessed the worth of the soul within.
The pistol hit the floor with a thud as Sam reached up and took hold of the trembling creature, the round body smooth and leather soft, the legs rough and firm as they grasped her arm in an anxious hug.
Looking up, Sam heard a metal clang at the ship's entrance; saw the ladder appear at the hole. Her father clambered up, his face blood-caked and dirty; one eye bruised almost to closing.
"Sam! Are you all right?" he gasped. "I heard you scream, and the shot. I thought maybe ..."
His mouth gaped, his eyes wide.
"Don't worry, Daddy." She looked down and smiled. "There's nothing to fear."