Jack Phillip Hall
Copyright © 2012
It was a Thursday as best I can recall. Parked the delivery van in the company lot as usual, behind the whitewashed brick building. Turned in the keys and switched jackets. End of another shift at Zexpress. Closed my locker and spun the combination. Back outside, I swung a leg over my old Suzuki, cranked it and let it idle. Zipped up my jacket and bucked the helmet. I had the rest of the night to myself. Gave the throttle a twist and started to pull away when suddenly the bike hiccupped and died. I rocked the tank. No swish. Could have waited for someone to give me a ride, but what the hell. I dealt with it. Pushed the bike out of the lot and ran it up the street to the top of the hill. Coasted down to the local station. The sky outside was black. I stood under the station lights, sniffing ethanol and thinking about what I had waiting for me: the one room apartment, a can of Chef Boyardee and the seventeen inch flat screen. The handle clicked. I reracked the nozzle. Thoughts turned to my latest obsession - those packages.
Once a week. It was always the same - plain brown cardboard boxes, each about the size of a boxed Twinkie, barely big enough to wrap a label around. Always three of them... and always the same vibe coming from them. Intermittent, like the rumble of a subway train passing, but faint, hardly perceptible. Always coded the same: leave without signature. I'd press the doorbell anyway and call out, "Zexpress - package for you." I waited, but no one ever answered. Been delivering packages to that house on Petra Street for thirty-five weeks straight. Always the same. It would make sense if it was a business. You'd expect a business to get regular deliveries - parts and supplies and such. But it was a house, a residence. And there was more. The sender looked bogus too. ACME, Fort Lauderdale, FL - no street address. ACME, like in the roadrunner cartoons. Had to be a joke. With each delivery the questions burrowed deeper under my skin. Just an average old house and a few small packages, but something was up. I could feel it.
Mostly I never cared about what was inside the pouches and boxes I delivered. It's their business. But none of the other packages ever hummed. Maybe it was some kind of medicine that needed to be agitated every so often. I'd never heard of anything like that, but who knows? It was a riddle with a zip code. What if it was something dangerous...something radioactive... bomb making parts.
I could've said something to Leroy, the fat bastard I work for. But I know him. He'd say that if I had time to worry about things like that, he'd be glad to put a few more stops on my run. How anyone like him gets to be a manager I'll never know. He's all about the money. He'll pat you on the back and tell you that if you work hard you'll get a raise. He's been telling me that for two years now. I'm the most dependable guy he's got and I've got a news flash for him. If I don't get a raise soon, I'm going to quit. Leroy wasn't the guy to go to with this.
A couple of weeks ago I thought about going to the cops... and tell them what? I've got packages that hum?
So there I was, under the station lights, screwing the cap back on, when my thoughts turned to the house with the vibrating packages. Bingo! Why not just cruise by and check the place out... see if the boxes were still on the porch? Simple enough; nothing better to do. Call it follow up; call it professional courtesy. Who knows, I might get lucky and see who's picking up those little hummers.
Ten minutes later I was in the neighborhood. Switched off the engine and coasted down a side street two blocks from the house. Parked the bike and started walking. It was an older part of town, front yards with low chain link fences, hedges between the houses. Most of the houses were wood, a couple of cement steps and a front porch. Probably built in the forties. I rounded the corner and strolled over to the opposite side of the street. Just a guy out for a walk. The front rooms of almost every house were lit by the flicker of TV sets. Down the street, headlights flared as a car turned into a driveway. There it was: 2121 Petra Street. It looked a little nicer than the other houses - one of those Craftsman style jobs: wood rafters jutting out from under the eaves. Tall hedges shouldered the lot on either side. Light from the street lamp on the corner barely touched the old wooden porch.
I stopped there, on the sidewalk across from the house. I could have walked right up to the front door and rang the bell. Tell them I work for the delivery company. Ask if they got their packages alright. Then again, no. They might ask questions. They might even report the intrusion to Zexpress. I didn't want trouble. Down the street someone was walking a dog. Music was playing and far away a helicopter was beating the air. What was I doing? This was a nutty idea. Just forget the whole thing. I walked on.
At the corner I turned in the direction of where I'd parked the bike. Then, for whatever reason, I'll never know, I stopped, turned and doubled back to the house. . I marched straight up the entry walk but quickly veered to the right, avoiding the old wooden stairs. Around the side of the porch I paused, waiting there in the shadows, getting my bearings. The porch and the front yard were in plain view. A light was on somewhere inside the house. The packages were gone. Okay, I thought, so someone lives there.
Going in and out of different properties was my job, but I'd never done anything like this before. I was trespassing and it didn't seem to bother me. I was there to get answers and it was like I had some kind of invisible authority. Next to the porch was a wooden fence about head high and a gate. In all the times I'd been there I'd never heard a dog, so it was probably safe to open the gate. Just reach over and undo the latch. I did it without even thinking, lifting the latch without a sound. I nudged the gate. It gave way and swung open with a soft groan. I quick stepped inside and closed the gate behind me.
Now, I'd done it. I was in enemy territory. I imagined at any moment flood lights might blast, sirens would blare and a squad of Nazi soldiers would come storming in out of nowhere, just like in those old movies. I stood there frozen for what seemed like forever, listening. There was a rustle in the tree overhead: a squirrel, maybe a bird. Then all of a sudden, light from a side window lit the darkness. I was lit up, exposed... the Nazi's were coming! I backed away, into the shadows. I couldn't see into the window but I heard sounds coming from inside, voices and furniture being moved. Half of me was already down the street heading for home. The other half was determined to steal a peek at whoever was receiving those packages. I wasn't a coward... but why did I have to do this? What kind of a fantasy was this? Who did I think I was, some sort of detective? I still don't understand what drove me. I edged up to the lower corner of the window. I could see someone's arm - a man's arm in a white shirt. His arm was moving, doing something on the table. I couldn't see without being seen.
There was a hedge behind the walkway. Behind the hedge was the neighbors fence. I brushed through a gap in the bushes and sidestepped my way to a position directly in front of the window. The hedge was hiding me from view. I could see the room: three people sitting at a table. Looked like a typical family: a mom, a dad and a teenage girl. They were neatly dressed, sitting very straight and looking very proper. I felt ashamed. These were obviously decent people, not criminals. And here I was, sneaking around their house. I should've left right then. It would've been the best for everyone.
The man was working with something... something that had a handle. I stood up as high as I could, but I wasn't tall enough to see. Feeling around, my foot found the cross-member at the bottom of the fence behind me. With one foot on the cross-member and one hand gripping the top of the fence I boosted myself up. Stretching my neck, I could see the table. There were the three boxes I had delivered earlier in the day. Two of the boxes were already open, one in front of each female. The man was working on the third. He cut the packing tape, opened the cardboard flap and bent it backwards. Then, looking up at his wife and daughter, he said something. I couldn't hear. They smiled and looked at their boxes. Simultaneously, they began unfolding thick waxy looking paper inside the box, the kind of paper that machine parts are packed in. Together, they reached into their boxes and removed gleaming stainless cylinders. What was this, I wondered? Some sort of exotic health food?
They stood their cylinders on end, each next to the box it came from. Then they just sat there, doing nothing. What was this? Some sort of ceremony? Were they saying grace? They leaned forward over the table and arched their necks upward, their eyes toward the ceiling. Their necks began to tremble. Their mouths opened wider and wider...wider than I would have thought possible. I was amazed. Glistening metal tracks extended out of their mouths. My teeth clenched and bolts of panic shot through me. Their torsos were trembling now. Small cylinders were emerging, sliding out along the tracks, out of their mouths. I wanted to run but I couldn't move. Gripping the ends of the cylinders, they slid the metal objects from their throats. The cylinders were dull metal... not shiny like the new ones standing upright on the table. They put the dull ones in the boxes and reached for the shiny ones, inserting them onto the tracks. Their throats began trembling again. The polished tubes retreated down their throats. I could feel the blood leaving my head and my grip on the fence weakening.
They closed their mouths and sat back, grinning as they folded the waxy paper over the disinterred parts. The older woman nodded and said something. I couldn't be sure, but it sounded like, "Bon repas." My head felt light and my fingers were going numb. My foot slipped from the cross-member and I crashed into the bushes, making eye contact with the older woman as I fell. Her eyes were burning, red-orange disks. I was caught in the headlights. The man bolted from his chair. His face filled the window. I was out of the blocks like an Olympic sprinter, crashing through the bushes - out the gate and over the walkway. I was around the corner in an adrenalin heartbeat.
Running as fast as I could, I was halfway down the next block when my foot snagged, pitching me forward, arms outstretched. A stump or a sprinkler must have caught my foot. I went face down on the pavement, the grit of cement stinging my cheekbone. I looked to see what had tripped me. To my surprise, a shiny metal clamp was stuck to the heel of my boot. I jumped to my feet, kicking the thing against the curb. It wouldn't come off. Then I saw him - the man thing - large - silhouetted by the street light. He walked calmly toward me. I turned to run but my leg was yanked away from me. Face down again. I flipped onto my back. He was there, above me, pulling on a thin metal wire, yanking my heel.
"Who are you?" he asked.
"Nobody," I said. After all, what could I say to an automaton. I mean, who the hell is ever prepared to deal with a situation like that?
"What do you want?"
"Nothing," I said.
"You are James Fowler of 2847 Bedard Street."
Sweet Jesus. How could he know who I was?
"You were spying," he said, eyes glowing at me.
My eyes were so riveted to him, I hadn't noticed a black van silently stopping at the curb next to me. The doors slid open and two of those SWAT looking guys bolted out. You know the ones: black ski masks, knit sweaters with bits of quiltwork here and there, black gloves and hard-toed boots... efficient and quick. They grabbed their human cargo, loaded me into the van and were on their way in seconds.
The next day they tied up all the loose ends: turned in my uniform and explained to Zexpress that a family matter required my immediate relocation to Illinois. They disposed of my bike and personal belongings, paid my back rent, shut off the utilities and left no forwarding address.
What does it mean? 'Know the truth and the truth will set you free.' That may have worked back in ancient Samaria but here in the twenty-first century the truth can be dangerous. There are parts of our government that most people don't know about. Take for example, the Command Bureau of Law Enforcement. Ever heard of them? Don't bother. You won't find them listed anywhere. They don't officially exist. Haven't got a clue who they work for but I can tell you this: know something you're not supposed to know and poof... you're gone.
Zexpress and the other mules have it right. What's in those packages is none of our business. What can I say? I was curious... stumbled onto a secret... a state secret. Who knew? Perfect imposters, human drones, undetectable from John Doe and Jane Smith... planted out there in suburbia. I don't know why they're out there or what the government is doing with them. And believe me; I don't want to know.
My world is concrete now, with the exception of a sloped glass roof about twenty feet over head. I can lay on my bed and see the weather. I've been in this cell for three years, reading and watching old movies, and I know I'll be here a lot longer. Am I bitter? Not really. It's not so bad here. The food is better than the canned ravioli I used to eat and the embedded forty-two incher has over four hundred channels. I've made myself comfortable. I'm safe from whatever's going to happen out there and, all in all, it's better than working for a living.