A cool breeze swept out of the nearby hills. Summer’s death rattle. We lingered in the playground across the field from the Great Invader as long as we could, knowing our parents would expect us home soon. Shanker hung from the jungle gym, lifting his chin again and again above the high bar. Caleb and I were chasing and dodging, firing blasters back and forth over the chipped stone wall. Our bicycles stood gleaming. This was a mighty time for us and we felt it ending, felt ourselves becoming small again, pushed into chairs and taught at.
I laced my fingers together and fired towards Caleb. The Great Invader loomed behind him. No one knew who named it that, but we knew the name came from long ago, that it passed like a torch from our grandparents forward. The town had many water towers but the old ones had all been torn down to make way for new constructions, condominiums that leaned over our houses and cast permanent shadows on our mothers’ tomatoes and roses. The Invader was the last of the old guard, rusty pale green and standing even taller than the church steeple. Where the newer towers were sleek and thin, the Invader was flat and squat like a UFO from old black and white movies. Which is why we figured they called it what they did. What we still did.
“Look!” I said.
It was that time of night that feels like it’s snatching the day from your eyes, giving it to streetlamps instead. It didn’t seem right, but I saw what I saw. Someone climbed out the belly of the Great Invader and on to the old rusted ladder that hung from its underside and dangled in midair above the park grounds.
The Invader had been there all my life. But no one went up into it, and certainly no one had ever come down.
Caleb hopped over to my side of the wall and crouched just beside me, squinting towards the Invader’s belly. He smelled like sweat, his breath quick from our games.
“Holy shit. Shanker,” he said. “You’ve got to see this.”
Shanker paid us no mind. He did one last pull-up, then hopped down from the jungle gym with a grunt. In the last year Shanker had grown tall and strong, the pitch of his voice had dropped, and he was full of tales of undoing cardigans and kissing girls with tongue.
A rush of breath passed over Caleb’s lips. Some thirty yards away from us the figure descended, arms and legs, down towards the park.
“Quick! Come here!” I said.
“What are you kids all worked up about?” Shanker said, stomping to us.
“There,” Caleb said. “The ladder. Look!”
Caleb pressed closer to me, our arms sliding against each other, and with his other arm he grabbed Shanker and pulled him to duck behind the wall with us.
“Get off me, fairy,” Shanker said. He shrugged off Caleb’s hand and gave a shove that sent Caleb sprawling against me. I nearly tipped over but steadied my legs and braced against Caleb, one hand to his belly, one to his back. We looked at one another then took a step apart.
“Fuck me, what is that?” Shanker said, pointing to the ladder. Caleb glared at the back of his head. It always got like this between them, lately. We both crowded a step behind him and his muscles anyway, all three of us crouched behind the wall and peeking to see.The silhouette reached the bottom of the ladder and dropped down to the ground. It looked left and right and hurried off in the opposite direction from us. Off into our town.
I had never known life without that UFO hovering in the sky above our town. Every night I fell asleep seeing it outside my window. I dreamed often of a beam breaking through the curtains, lifting me into the sky, scanning me from skeleton to skin, and then pulling me inside. Floating above our sleepy town, the long-dormant rockets would spurt fire down on the park grounds, burning away the overgrown grass and sending waves of flame into the streets. I beat my fists against a porthole, crying out as the Invader zapped across the galaxy, taking me from Mom and Dad, from Caleb, from everything good that I knew.
“We should go up there,” Caleb said. “See what’s inside.”
An unfamiliar lack of sureness came over Shanker. It was only this summer that he had taken that name. It came at the end of his, after William and Paul, and it was the name on his father’s grave where his mother sometimes dragged him.
He looked at us, nodded and crept along the stone wall. Caleb followed. I looked out at the grass beneath the Invader. Whoever had come down, he was in our streets, wandering around our homes, our families, our parents in their kitchens. To think that something hid behind our lives without our knowing. Just to think of it.
I hurried to catch up. My fingers found the softness of Caleb’s forearm, tugging at him to wait up. He tried to smile my fear away. Our shadows from the lamps in the park stretched out long and thin ahead of us. The whole town was so quiet.
“Should we get an adult?” I said. “Caleb, we could call your dad?”
I knew his father was on duty, Thursday nights out on patrol. Caleb spat.
That cool breeze whistled past again as we passed into the circle of the Invader’s legs, its broad green belly overhead. We fanned out around the bottom of the ladder, looking up to where it disappeared in the dark underside. I could just make out the outline of a trapdoor hanging open.
“One of us should go up,” Caleb said. “If it’s something weird, we’ll all go get help.”
Shanker scratched his neck and looked across the park.
“If we might need help, why don’t we get someone now?” I asked.
There was no good answer, aside from keeping what was ours as ours.
“Shanker,” Caleb said. “You’re the biggest.”
“Ah, hell,” Shanker said, stepping back from the ladder. “You little jackoffs are making something out of nothing.”
“It’s not nothing!” I said. “You saw it.”
“He’s just a pussy,” Caleb said.
The wind wriggled through my clothes, my stomach tightened.
“Say that again, fairy,” Shanker said. “You’re the one who walks like there’s nothing between your legs.”
“You’re a pussy!” Caleb yelled. “You’re scared, that’s why you won’t do it.”
“I’ll show you scared.”
Shanker circled around the ladder and Caleb stepped behind me. I felt his hand on the small of my back like a question.
“Just forget it,” I said. “Let’s go home. Come on, Will.”
“Don’t call me that,” Shanker said. “You go. I’m gonna show Caleb who’s the pussy.”
Caleb stepped out from behind me and reached up on the tips of his toes. His fingertips just brushed the bottom rung of the ladder.
“Fine,” he said, glaring at Shanker. “I’ll go. Boost me up.”
Shanker looked at me, as if I had any authority here. His hands uncurled from fists and he lifted Caleb up by his underarms. Caleb scrambled onto the ladder, wrapping his skinny body against the rungs and the rails. He was just a head above us but he looked so much farther away.
“Caleb, come down,” I begged.
“Let him have his little adventure,” Shanker said, arms folded over his chest.
Caleb climbed and I felt my whole body pulled by some tether. I stepped beneath the ladder and reached up, fingertips nowhere near the bottom rung.
“Give me a boost, Shanker. I’m not letting him go alone.”
“This is retarded,” Shanker said. He scratched the back of his neck.
But I wouldn’t budge and so he hoisted me up. I hadn’t seen from watching Caleb all the little ways in which the ladder shook with every movement he made. But now with my body clinging to it I could feel every vibration.
“What the hell am I supposed to do?” Shanker yelled. His voice cracked.
I could feel blood rushing all through my body. I’d lived with the Invader my whole life and now I was touching it, climbing it. Caleb climbed fast and I followed after him. I curled my fingers around each rung and made sure my sneakers had a grip before I pushed to the next step.
The wind blew colder the higher I got and I gripped the ladder so tight my fingers hurt. My parents took me up to the top of Mount Robins once, and all that day the wind sang songs between the rocks. Mom had walked me to the edge and held her arm firm around my waist as she steadied herself against a rock and leaned us over a bit, as far as she thought was safe, whispering are you okay and me whispering yes, a little further.
Soon I was looking down at the little cross topping the steeple at First Lutheran. The whole town stretched out beneath me, our homes, our school, the factory at the edge of town where Dad went each day to sit in his office with its one-way window onto the factory floor.
Caleb reached the soft glow coming from the open trap door. All my life I’d dreamed about the machinery inside, the hyperdrives, the laser torpedoes that would be our town’s undoing. His legs disappeared into the Great Invader.
A hard wind blew past, rattling the ladder. I couldn’t make out Shanker, only the ground far, far below. I hurried after Caleb, pulling myself up and inside.
The air pressed thick and muggy on my skin, like the Invader held in all the day’s late summer heat and squeezed it together. My stomach lurched. It stunk like garbage left under the sink too long. I moved towards Caleb’s silhouette and our fingers laced together.
An electric lantern spread weak light across the Invader’s floor. The walls curved up on all sides, mottled with rust that flaked and crumbled right before our eyes. The upper half of the dome was lost in shadow. There was no chrome, no futuristic glowing tubes, nothing that felt out of this world at all.
I grasped Caleb’s hand tighter as he pulled me towards the lamp. Something skittered across the floor and we pressed up against each other. It was only a can Caleb kicked into some others. Soup and beans, Spaghetti-O’s, tin cylinders with their lids torn back and the last bits inside gone moldy. I had visions of the crock pot sitting on the counter at home, hot and warm.
The lantern was a battery powered electric model like my dad brought camping, only old and rusty. The light flickered. It wasn’t bright enough to blind us, it wasn’t too dim to see by, either. It was just sort of sad. It sat on the floor next to a thin sleeping pad and a scraggly mound of blankets. Dog-eared books were piled up around its base. Caleb let go of my hand and knelt beside one of the piles.
“Don’t,” I said.
“I wanna see.”
“I don’t think we should touch anything.”
He put his hand on a hardcover with a stained, torn dust jacket. It stuck out from the middle of one pile, so when he pulled it out two books propped on top of it both thunked to the floor. I winced. Caleb flipped through the book. It was full of equations and black and white pictures, but with notes scrawled in every margin and diagrams drawn right on top of the words on almost every page. The diagrams looked like the charts and blueprints that Dad spread out on the worktable at home, but the closer I looked these were just wild scribbles. They made no sense at all.
Caleb dropped the book and picked up the lantern, swung it around to illuminate the rest of the cavern. Aside from the messes of tin cans and suggestion of a bedroom, there was nothing. Caleb walked towards the center of the room, taking the light with him, leaving me by the bed in darkness.
“Hello!” he yelled, and his voice echoed loud and tinny all around us. “Echo!” he yelled again and I cringed. We weren’t supposed to be up there. I moved towards Caleb and tugged at his arm.
“Caleb, let’s go. Shanker’s waiting.”
“I guess,” he said.
I followed him back to the bed and the piles of books. He set the lantern down where we’d taken it from. Then he sat down on the bed.
“What are you doing?” I said.
“I wish I had a place like this,” Caleb said. “All my own. Except not as smelly.”
He smiled and leaned back on his elbows, smiling up at me. I felt pulled two ways at once. I couldn’t stop wondering what if the man who lived here came back and found us.
“Come on, let’s go,” I said. I stepped backwards and my foot knocked a garbage bag on its side. The rotten stink in the room sharpened and I covered my mouth, gagging. Whoever was living up here, I imagined him rummaging through the bins alongside our garage and felt violated and shamed all at once.
I hurried to the hatch. I wanted to feel grass beneath my feet. To get out of this rusted metal and back to our dirt. Caleb lingered. Why he’d want to stay up here when back down the ladder our whole world waited.
“Please,” I said.
“Okay,” Caleb answered. He walked over, touched my shoulder. “You alright?”
We descended from the dim light towards the soft electric landscape below. The air so clean. Everything seemed to have shrunk in the time we were gone, as if the whole town had lost some of its substance. I could see the factory, working deep into the night, little chuffs of smoke rising.
I reached the dangling bottom of the ladder and didn’t see Shanker anywhere. I braced myself and hopped down. Pain shot up my right shin. I tumbled backwards and landed splayed out on my back, rolled over onto my stomach as Caleb jumped. He splayed out just like I had and then we looked at one another in silence. I don’t know which of us smiled first.
Caleb stood and offered me his hand, helping me up on my tender ankle.
“Where do you think he is?” I said.
As if on cue Shanker came rushing over from one of the Invader’s legs, wide-eyed and panting.
“I was getting fucking worried. What the hell is up there?”
“Let’s go get our bikes,” I said.
The night was one dark shadow draped over the neighborhood. Caleb walked and I limped with Shanker beside us full of questions and Caleb answering. Even with the pain in my ankle, I felt stretched somehow. Shanker seemed smaller now. Everything did.
We walked out from under the Invader and it seemed more plain and real than it ever had. It was a water tower, built by people out of earthly metal. I could see workers welding each crossbeam and locking each nut and bolt into place. It all fit, it all made sense, in the plainest way. And I could see how time worked upon it, how the paint flaked and chipped. How it wasn’t smooth and shiny at all but broken down and fractured.
“Gross!” Shanker said when Caleb finished our story. “We gotta tell somebody so they can get in there and clean it up.”
We’d arrived by the park entrance where our bikes all leaned on their kickstands.
“Don’t do that,” Caleb said. “Whoever’s up there, we don’t know if they’re bad. It’s just…somebody’s house.”
I was between them, like always, and I could feel it happening.
“If some nasty dude lives up there he could be a total weirdo. A perv,” Shanker said.
“A perv?” I said.
“You know. A homo or something,” Shanker said with a grin.
Caleb kicked up the stand on his bike.
“You going home, Caleb?” I asked.
He nodded. “Yeah, I’m tired.” He paused. “Tired of Will’s shit, too.”
Shanker grinned. “Aw, fairy. Did I touch a sore subject?”
There was just the wind for a second, then Caleb’s bike hit the ground, and Shanker’s eyes were wide as Caleb shouldered him square in the gut. Shanker dropped to the ground with Caleb on top of him, the two of them rolling and twisting on the dark green park grounds, fists and feet flying.
“Stop it, you guys! Stop!”
I wanted it all to just be a game, but we were playing games less and less.
I was too scared to throw myself into the scrum.
The lights saved me from having to, saved them from fighting. Two bright streams of white came up the street that dead-ended on the park entrance. I shielded my eyes. A siren gave one brief whoop, the engine cut, the door opened, and Caleb’s dad stepped out in uniform.
Caleb and Shanker were still tangled in each other’s limbs but they’d quit fighting and sat frozen.
“The hell are you boys doing. Get up off each other. Caleb, get in this goddamn car.”
Caleb and Shanker stood up, covered in scratches and stains, mumbling their sorries and wiping dirt from their clothes. Shanker’s nose was bloody and Caleb’s bottom lip was split open.
“Hey, I’m really sorry, Mr. F—”
“Quiet, Will. I’m sure your mother will be happy to hear you’ve been scrapping again. Get on your bike and go home.” Caleb’s dad looked at me. “You, too. Go on.”
I limped towards my bike.
“Can you even ride that thing?” Caleb called after me.
“I don’t know,” I shrugged.
Shanker sped off on his bike.
“Can we give him a ride, Dad?”
Caleb’s dad grunted, walked over and picked up my bicycle. He put it in the trunk of his squad car on top of Caleb’s, our wheels and handlebars sticking up and out, then stretched a nylon cord from inside to hold the trunk shut.
Caleb and I each sat in the back seat, me behind his father, him behind the passenger seat, the middle yawning between us. The car smelled leathery. Caleb’s dad’s face was cut up into fragments by the metal netting that separated the back seat from the front.
The Invader grew smaller and smaller behind us. My ankle throbbed and I reached down to rub at it.
“You alright?” Caleb whispered.
“Think so. I twisted it a little, I guess.”
His hand lay on the seat beside him. I reached across to put mine on top of his. Just before it landed Caleb turned his palm upwards to meet mine. Our skin pressed together and we squeezed one another.
We rolled to a stop at a traffic light. The heat of Caleb’s hand was such a comfort.
“Caleb,” came his father’s voice. He stared at us through the rearview mirror. I felt tension in Caleb’s fingers, and I curled mine just a little more around the edges of his hand. “Come sit up front.”
Caleb pulled his hand from mine. I waited for him to look at me but he just stepped out of the car and got in the passenger seat instead.
I tried making eye contact with him in the mirror but he stared straight ahead.
He made to get out of the car when they dropped me off but his dad told him to stay put, then got my bike out of the trunk and handed it to me.
“Thanks a lot for the ride, sir,” I said.
The door to my house opened and my dad stepped out, calling my name and asking if everything was okay. Caleb’s father slammed the car door shut and he drove off, kicking up gravel and peeling down the street.
Dad gave my shoulder a squeeze, kissed the top of my head.
“You know, you’re not supposed to pull up in a police car for a few more years.”
“I hurt my ankle, Dad.”
He took my bike and wheeled it into the garage, passing our garbage cans on the way. Mom waved to me from the kitchen window.
The kitchen smelled like Pine-Sol. I took my favorite seat at the table, the one with the plushest cushion. Mom’s pot roast was juicy and delicious as ever. Our house was quiet and neat and I kept noticing the way that everything was set just in place, set just right.
“That was nice of Caleb’s father to give you a ride,” Mom said.
I chewed my dinner, remembering the leather smell, the hard voice, the soft palm.
Dad scooped ice cream into bowls for each of us.
“What’s in the Great Invader?” I asked between spoonfuls.
Mom smiled. “That thing’s been empty for years, honey. It’s just rusting away.”
“There’s talk they’re gonna take the whole thing down soon,” Dad said. “Maybe build out the park. That’ll be cool for you and your friends.”
He ruffled my hair and told me to wash up before bed. Brushing my teeth, I still felt bigger, but in the mirror I looked the same as always.
Mom came to tuck me in, there in my room with all of my posters and toys and things, all of it strewn about in such a clean mess. She kissed my ankle first and wrapped a bandage around it. I got into bed. My fingers wrapped around the edge of the sheet where it was drawn up to my chin. She smelled like home, leaning down to kiss my cheek.
I had so many questions for her, but I didn’t know how to ask them. Caleb might know how, but there was no one he could.
Mom shut the door and a few minutes later I got out of bed. Dad had taken the air conditioners down and that cool breeze outside was swirling in my room. I stood by the open window, shivering in my underwear and shirt. The water tower was there, catching the moonlight and throwing it back to the sky, same as always. Try as I might, I couldn’t see it rising up and taking off into the sky. It didn’t seem like anything so much as a tin can, and all I could imagine was the whole thing tipping over onto its side, crushing the playground and cracking open, spilling garbage out all over our town.
A gust of wind blew hard against the house, twirling around my legs and up inside my shirt. I stepped away from the window and sat on my bed. In the moonlight I could see a million little bumps up and down my thighs. I ran the flats of my palms against them, and then the tips of my fingers, little shivers jumping all through my skin. Whole worlds were there along my muscles and my bones. My fingers brushed against each other in the space where my legs touched and I opened my thighs a little wider, one hand warming the other. Something was missing. I closed my eyes and moved skin against skin, imagining that one hand was mine, and the other belonged to someone else.