Tuesday, November 9, 2010

A selection from "After Welles" by Michael Scott Bricker

After Welles

by Michael Scott Bricker

he odd had become commonplace, the ordinary, all too rare. While driving home through downtown Grover’s Mill, New Jersey, I was slowed by a passing military convoy, and was reminded of the war in Europe. Jeeps and big, heavy trucks secreted what I assumed to be Martian goods along the eastern road. Spindly mechanical legs, blackened, muddied, poked out from under a massive tarp on one of the larger trucks, and I wondered if another ruined Martian machine had been uncovered. Somewhere under that tarp was a heat ray, I assumed, and I imagined scientists and military men examining their find in locked rooms, drawing diagrams, blueprints, building prototype machines, Martian weapons, splashed with air force insignia. I imagined U.S. machines crawling into Europe, going up against Nazi war machines, cities obliterated in the flash of a heat ray. The United States would become involved, it was inevitable, and in human hands, the new weapons could finish the mission that the Martians had failed to complete. By handing us the tools of our own destruction, I thought, the Martians may have won, after all.
I wondered if Ruthie would be offended, if she would find a gift of Martian origin to be distasteful, or worse, offensive. It was a handmade silver brooch, a product of black market artisans, more beautiful than any I had ever seen. Spun silver, little intertwined bows fashioned into the image of a rose, and at the center, a polished Martian mirror. I rubbed my thumb across the surface of the mirror and thought of the girl who had sold it to me, her gentle face (so beautiful, I imagined, before a heat ray had bubbled her skin), and I wondered why she would sell artifacts that would certainly hold painful memories.
The centerpiece of the brooch, that fantastic, reflective mirror, had been crafted from a shattered heat ray assembly, taken from a Martian Cylinder which had been discovered only a month ago by a worker with the New Works Progress Administration. That was what she told me, and I had no reason to doubt her, because as I held the brooch in the sunlight, rotated it in my palm, the mirror changed color, red then yellow then blue, and I felt that nothing of earthly origins could be so beautiful, so frightening.
They had nearly destroyed us all.
The New Jersey State Militia was out in force, uniformed men wandering along crumbling walks, stopping people, searching through packages, and as I drove slowly down Main Street, I took the brooch from my coat pocket, reached down, hid it beneath the seat. Grover’s Mill was slowly coming back to life. A new building was going up where the old Owl Drugs had been, a cold, formidable structure in brick and steel. All of the new buildings were like that, built for strength and utility, void of ornament, as if to show the world, the universe, that we were not to be provoked. I missed Owl Drugs. It had been in an old brownstone with apartments above, and I would have lunch there almost every day. I had eaten lunch there on the afternoon of October 30th, 1939. Hours later, the first cylinder had impacted.
The Militia was stopping automobiles ahead, asking questions. I thought about Ruthie, hoped that she would still be waiting for me if I were late. It took twenty minutes for my Plymouth to make it to the front of the line, and as it did, I remembered the photograph on the seat next to me.
“Where are you coming from?” The uniformed man leaned over, reached in, put his hand over the steering wheel.
If he saw the photograph, what would he do? He might search the automobile, find the brooch, fine me or put me in jail for possessing Martian goods.
“What’s wrong? Didn’t mean to startle you.”
I was staring at the photograph, hadn’t realized it until the man spoke. “Sorry. On my way out of town. Business...”
“You all right?”
I turned, looked at the man, was relieved to find that I knew him. His name was Jim Breckenridge, and he used to live in Morristown before the invasion. “Jim, it is you, isn’t it?”
“Sure. Haven’t seen you in some time.” He paused. “I’ve stayed away from New Jersey during the last year. Now I’m in the Militia. Too much free time. Had to do something, you know?”
Although it had only been a year since I had last seen Jim and his wife, he looked years older, and he carried himself awkwardly. I wondered what could have happened to change him so, and then I remembered the Morristown Cylinder. It had given birth to three of the most destructive Martian Crawlers of the invasion. After choking the countryside within a fog of poisonous black smoke, the machines had joined three more then moved towards New York City. Jim, who had been away on business at the time, lived through the invasion. His wife and two children had not.
Jim paused, stared at the seat next to me. I knew he had seen the photograph, watched his face grow pale. He took his hand from the wheel, backed up, said “Move along.”
I sensed no emotion in his voice, and it was obvious that I was no longer welcome, an invader like those leathery creatures that had taken his family. As I drove off, I wondered why Jim hadn’t taken me into custody, and I imagined that he no longer had any fight left, that the Martians had taken his spirit as well. The photograph kept me company as I left the repopulated main drag of Grover’s Mill behind and headed for the ruins of the Wilmuth Farm. I held the photograph as I drove, stared at the beautiful image of Ruthie and I holding hands, and I wandered from the dirt road now and then as I thought about how severely the local laws might punish a white man like myself who had been photographed while holding hands with a Negro woman.

Ruthie waited at the Wilmuth Farm. I found her standing near the edge of the crater where the first cylinder had impacted. When I touched her shoulders, she barely reacted. “All dead.”
She turned, embraced me. “All dead.”
“I know.” Who were dead? I wondered. Certainly not the Martians. We were still being watched, scrutinized. That was what journalists like Edward R. Murrow and Orson Welles had reported, and even the noted astronomer Professor Pierson reasoned that one day the Martians would learn to combat the earthly bacteria which had ended their lives, and they would try again.
The roof of the farmhouse had burned and fallen in, and not far away, blackened wood littered the ground where a heat ray had struck the silo. I wondered why the Wilmuth farm had not burned to the ground, and I remembered hearing that Martian heat rays burned only those areas that they were focused upon, that they rarely ignited larger fires. Their destruction was very precise and complete, just as the Martian invasion might have been had the bacteria not stopped them.
Ruthie gently pushed me away and said “Someone might come. They might see us.”
“Nobody comes here anymore,” I said, and I wondered how much longer that would be true. The first Martian machine had risen out of this crater, over the rim where Ruthie and I stood, and its heat ray had burned forty people in a matter of seconds. It took several days to recover the bodies.
“There are ghosts here.” Ruthie held my hand and guided me towards the farmhouse. “They talk to me sometimes.”
I picked up a blackened stake from the weed-choked garden and knocked off shards of glass from the frame of a broken window. We crawled in and found ourselves in the Wilmuth’s kitchen. I was surprised by how modern the kitchen looked, not at all like what one might expect from the owners of a small farm. Along the wall, pots, pans and burnt timbers were scattered on the floor near a new white enameled kerosene range and a porcelain cabinet. I saw an electric refrigerator near the opposite wall, and wondered how the Wilmuths had afforded it. Electric refrigerators cost at least one hundred dollars, while an ice unit could be had for less than twenty. I felt a chill; the touch of Ruthie’s ghosts, of autumn. It was two days until Halloween, and tomorrow would be the first anniversary of the invasion.
I hoped that the Wilmuths had enjoyed their farm before the Martians had taken their lives. Bob Wilmuth, his wife, their two children; all killed in one, terrible blast of a heat ray.
“I’ve brought you something,” I said, then reached into my coat pocket and handed the brooch to Ruthie. I gently closed her fingers around it. “A year. Nearly a year.”
“Our first anniversary.” Ruthie smiled, opened her hand, and sunlight reflected from the mirror into her deep brown eyes, against her smooth, dark skin. She was so young, so beautiful, and at twenty-six, she reminded me of a girl of eighteen. Again I thought of the girl who had sold the brooch to me, of how a heat ray had disfigured her so, of how grateful I was that Ruthie had escaped a similar fate. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I didn’t know what to get for you. It’s a terrible gift.” I felt foolish for giving the brooch to Ruthie. It was irresponsible, even cruel. If the militia found her with it, she would be arrested.
“It’s beautiful,” Ruthie said. “Don’t worry. I’ll be fine.”
“Will you?”
She hugged me, laughed uncomfortably. I could feel tremors moving throughout her body. “It’s not nearly as bad anymore. It’s been weeks since anyone has thrown rocks. Maybe they’ve decided that I’m not a Martian.”
“It’s stupid, ridiculous.” I said. Ruthie looked beautiful and I told her so, told her that people who refused to acknowledge her beauty were blinded by ignorance. I embraced her, wrapped her in my pale arms, and then I saw a Forager peeking through the window.
He was perhaps fifteen years old, and he had wild, matted hair and a feral look about him. Like many Foragers, he had painted his face in the Martian Style, had streaked soot along the edges of his lips so his mouth formed an inverse “V.” I remembered the reporter’s radio broadcast during the evening of the invasion. He had stood on the edge of the Wilmuth Crater as a Martian emerged from that first Cylinder. It was horrible, he had said, the most terrifying thing he had ever witnessed. “Tentacles, wet leather, V-shaped mouth dripping with saliva, large as a bear.”
“Don’t worry,” I said. “Foragers work on the wrong side of the law. He won’t tell anyone.” I had no sympathy for Foragers, and had Ruthie not been with me, I might have gone after him, turned him in. It was rumored that the Nazis had harnessed heat ray technology, and Foragers were precisely the sort of people who were responsible. They were scavengers of the worst sort, selling Martian artifacts to whoever would pay, no questions asked. The United States Government considered Grover’s Mill to be an important strategic area, and weird bits of Martian machinery were still being found in abandoned fields or on the bottom of shallow lakes. It was technology that we wanted to keep in the United States, technology that could win a war, or prolong one.
  “I worry about you. You’re not safe with me.” Ruthie paused, and after an awkward silence, said “You should find a white woman. It would better for you.”
Her comment angered me, and I pulled back. “I don’t care what color you are, white, yellow, green... I really don’t think about that sort of thing. I’m not some backwards paranoid idiot...”
Ruthie began to cry, and I held her close, hated myself for my outburst.
“I’m sorry,” I said. Ever since the invasion, racism had been on the rise. This was particularly true in Grover’s Mill. Ignorant locals had accused a Negro family of helping the Martians, had developed the moronic theory that Negroes had Martian Blood. I watched as friends were jailed on trumped up charges, was sickened by it, wanted to leave Grover’s Mill behind, but Ruthie’s father insisted on remaining in town. He said that things would get better, and so I stayed as well. Ruthie’s father was named Nathan, and he was a widower, an accomplished surgeon, and I had found it shocking to learn that a man who had helped to save the lives of so many invasion victims was being terrorized almost nightly by supporters of the Purity Movement. They claimed that they were defending the American Way of Life. If this was America, I wondered if Mars might be better.
We explored the rest of the farm, spoke about us, our love, avoided talk about the grim world. We found joy in the rubble, and it was an odd thing, this juxtaposition between our feelings of destruction and renewal, and I wondered if it was because we were angry at Grover’s Mill, if we wanted to see the entire town obliterated. The rubble reminded us of our beginnings as well. Ruthie’s father saved my life. He found me lying on a downtown walk, gasping for breath as a cloud of greasy Martian smoke floated through the air. He covered his mouth, moved into the cloud, pulled me away, offered me life-giving breath from his own mouth. It was something I had never seen before, “resuscitation,” he called it, and he told me that it was simple, a technique that every person could learn. The doctor’s house was located a mile from the Wilmuth Farm, yet it had been overlooked by the Martians, and the doctor was good enough to let me recover in his home. That was where I met Ruthie, and I believe that I fell in love with her the moment that I met on her.
We sat on the rim of the crater until the sun set, then watched the stars, in silence, for a long while. A meteor flashed across the sky, and I made a wish upon it, wondered if Ruthie had done the same. I saw her lips moving, her eyes close, and then I knew that she, too, was praying that the arc of light had been a meteor, and nothing more.

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