Nelson believed that sometime in his life he had been abducted by aliens and was experimented on. Sitting on the side of the highway surrounded by sun burnt yellow prairie grass he gazed up at the star spattered night sky watching for spaceships. He licked his parched lips, savoring the last flavor of salty pretzels and stale beer that clung to them. From out in the prairie the barking of coyotes sounded almost melodic. He wondered, Do coyote eat humans?
He lay back in the grass and with his arms behind his head he inhaled the prairie aromas of cow and buffalo manure, dying grass, and sun scorched earth, carried by the steady, hot breeze. After a few minutes of trying to ignore the flying insects that buzzed around his head and used his prominent nose as a runway, he sat back up and swatted at the bugs, even though he couldn’t see them. In the darkness the only thing around him that he could see very clearly was his white sock. He wiggled his foot.
On the other foot his green snakeskin boot was entangled in a clump of grass. It took several tugs on his lower leg to free it. With his sock and boot lying side by side at the end of his outstretched legs, he thought, How did things get this out of hand?
Standing, he scanned the dark highway, and seeing no headlights in either direction, he stepped out of the grass and onto the pavement. Surprised to find his brown Stetson stuck on a bit of tar, he picked it up, brushed it off, put it on, and began walking toward home. In the otherwise quiet of the night his boot clomping down on the concrete with every other step resounded like firecrackers being set off in a cemetery.
He kept looking back to make sure no aliens were following him.
* * *
Beams of sunlight were breaking through the thick, gray early morning clouds as Nelson hopped on the booted foot up the long gravel driveway to his house. The stones crunched beneath his boot. His foot with the sock hurt too much to lower it, so he held it up like a horse with a lame leg. His two dogs, Scrapper and Bigboy, both mutts, came around the house, barking, and ran up to him, their tales wagging frenetically. There was an engorged tick attached to the space between Scrapper’s large brown eyes. Bigboy’s long black hair was matted and coated with prairie dust. Both dogs smelled of dead gopher.
Hopping toward the steps leading up to the porch, he patted both of the dogs on their heads, and said, “I feel as mangy as you look.”
He jumped up onto the first step as the front door of the house was thrown open.
Stepping out onto the porch in her pink bathrobe with both hands on the butt of her 44 Magnum revolver and her finger on the trigger and aiming at Nelson, Cathy said, “You come up one more step and I’m going to blow your head off.”
Balanced on the booted foot, Nelson removed his hat and slapped it against his leg. “You dumped me on the side of the highway when I was drunk. I could have been eaten by coyotes.” Or taken into space.
“Coyotes don’t eat people,” she said, keeping her gun aimed at him.
Well, now I know, he thought. He lowered his socked foot and bit into his lower lip. He was certain he felt the blisters on the sole of his foot burst. The foot in the boot felt as if it had swollen several sizes.
“Put the revolver down before it goes off accidentally,” he said. “One of these days one of your stunts is going to kill me.”
Giggling, Cathy lowered the gun and put it in a pocket in her bathrobe. She leaned against the porch railing and with her left index finger twirled the curled end of a strand of her long brown hair. “What happened to your other boot?” she said.
“I don’t know,” he said, then began up the steps, wincing with every step.
* * *
Sitting on the window seat, Nelson watched a small herd of buffalo slowly cross the border of his property. The breeze that came under the partially raised window was scented with rain, although the night sky was clear. A screeching hawk drew his attention away from the buffalo. He heard it but couldn’t see it. When a gleaming white stripe flashed across the sky and disappeared beyond the Badlands formations, he shuddered. I wonder who they’ve abducted, he thought.
Cathy came into the bedroom carrying a cup of tea. “How are your feet?” she said.
He held the bare foot up and showed her the bandages he had put over the blisters. He kept the booted foot raised on a pillow on the window seat. “My ankle is so swollen I can’t get the boot off,” he said.
“That’s too bad,” she said. She carried the tea to him and handed it to him. Steam curled up from the dark brown liquid. She sat on the edge of the bed, watching him intently.
“Thank you,” he said, then raised the cup to his lips and blew on the tea, then took a sip. “This is good,” he said.
“I have something to tell you,” she said, twirling the end of a strain of hair. “I’m pregnant and I put poison in the tea.”
She’s insane, he thought just before he passed out.
* * *
Rain pelted the kitchen window as Cathy poured milk on her bowl of oatmeal. She let it set for a moment then scooped spoonfuls from the bowl to her mouth. The ticking of the clock on the wall above the refrigerator was slightly louder than the rain. As she ate she flipped the pages of a calendar, counting the days until the baby was due.
Nelson entered the room with his hands on his head. His skin was pale. “What did you put in the tea?” he said.
Cathy looked up and said, “Does it really matter?”
“I guess not,” he said as he sat down at the table and propped his booted foot up on a another chair. “Being poisoned was something different. You haven’t done that to me before.”
She put a spoonful of oatmeal in her mouth. “It wasn’t actually poison,” she said with a large grin.
He put his crossed arms on the table then put his head on them. “Are you really pregnant?” he said.
She put her finger on the January 19 square of the calendar. “I wouldn’t make something like that up,” she said.
I thought the aliens rendered me infertile, he thought.
When the scratching at the back door began, Nelson and Cathy remained seated. They were each waiting for the other one to get up and go to the door. After several minutes and knowing Cathy was capable of ignoring anything she wanted to for as long as she wanted, Nelson got up from the chair and shuffled across the kitchen to the door and opened it. Scrapper was sitting on the top step, dripping wet, with a forlorn look in his eyes.
“Why aren’t you in the barn?” Nelson said.
Scrapper barked and turned his head toward the open prairie.
“Where’s Bigboy?” Nelson said.
The dog barked again, then ran down the stairs and stopped in the mud, his nose pointed in the direction of the Badlands formations. Nelson closed the door and returned to the table and sat down.
“Is everything okay?” Cathy said.
“Bigboy is in the Badlands,” he said. “I guess I’ll have to go look for him later on.”
“That would be the right thing to do. That dog has no sense of direction and won’t get home on his own,” she said. “Watch out for rattlesnakes while you’re out there.”
And alien spacecraft, he thought.
* * *
It was late afternoon before the rain stopped. Nelson sat on the edge of the bed changing the Band Aids on his foot while Cathy sat in the window seat writing baby names in a small black notebook.
“How about Waldo?” she said.
“Good Lord, no,” he said as he covered the last busted blistered with a Band Aid.
“Mandrake?” she said.
He slid a clean white sock over his foot. “No,” he said.
He attempted again to get the boot off but his foot was still too swollen. He stood up and looked down at the contrast of the white sock and the green boot. For a moment he considered putting another boot on the socked foot, but it gave him the vague feeling he would be betraying the missing boot. He crossed the room and bent down and kissed Cathy on the forehead.
“If I don’t come back, look for me among the stars,” he said and left the room.
As he went down the stairs he tripped over fishing line that had been tied to the bannister at one end and tacked to the wall at the other. He tumbled over six stairs before landing on his buttocks at the bottom on a throw rug. He looked up. Cathy was standing at the top of the stairs with a huge grin on her face.
He got up and went out the front door, called for Scrapper, and got into the truck with the dog in the passenger seat and drove off toward the Badlands.
* * *
With the windows down the wind blowing in carried the aromas of wet earth and prairie grass. Twilight cast gold and purple light across the limestone formations. Scrapper had his head out the window with his mouth open and his tongue hanging out and flapping in the breeze. Nelson drove slowly on the narrow road that wound between two walls of rock. Intermittently he would slow almost to a full stop and call Bigboy’s name. Just when he was about to quit looking and return home, he spotted Bigboy sitting on top of a formation and looking up at the sky.
Nelson pulled the truck to the side of the road and he and Scrapper got out. Together they climbed the formation and reached Bigboy just as the sun set and stars began to freckle the night sky.
“What are you doing, you crazy dog?” Nelson said to Bigboy.
The dog continued staring up at the sky.
Nelson sat down next to him and Scrapper sat down on the other side of Bigboy. All three looked up at the sky.
There was a sudden flash of light above them and an object fell out of the darkness. Nelson’s missing boot hit him on the head.
I knew it, he thought.
He put on the boot and looked at both boots, side by side. Once again he felt complete. He climbed down the formation with the two dogs and got in the truck and drove home.
STEVE CARR, who lives in Richmond, Va., began his writing career as a military journalist and has had over a 120 short stories published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals and anthologies. He was a 2017 Pushcart Prize nominee. He is on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100012966314127 and Twitter @carrsteven960.
Image: Beate Bachmann via Pixabay