After the Probe

After the Probe

Fiction Contest Finalist

The meetings took place in a church building, the basement of which had been renovated into a community rec-room.  During the week it held various organizations and gatherings, by appointment, and it was here that everyone in the Abductees Anonymous group assembled Tuesdays at three.  One card table, a scarred garage-sale relic, held two large carafes of coffee, cookies, and sometimes the odd assortment of fruit.  For the most part the food was untouched, but the coffee never lasted much longer than half the session.  In the precise center of the room blue, yellow, and antique-white tiles formed a decorative star, and it was around this the chairs were set in a close circle.

Doctor Catherine Hemp, built like a dancer but with the countenance of a Mother Nun, did rounds as the clock’s hands counted down.  How are you doing, Jeremy?  Was work good this week?  Nice to see you here again, Melissa, I believe we’ll really get somewhere this time.  Hello, have we met?  Dwayne you said?  Now that’s a nice name, I’d like you to sit by me this afternoon… 

She ran the group by herself, voluntarily, and although it was the only one of its kind in the state the numbers remained modest.  Most were voluntary members, but a few local psychiatric facilities and mental programs were beginning to work with Catherine on making meetings part of therapy programs.

As if you could quit being abducted by talking about it.

Anytime after two people would begin to arrive, half-heartedly picking at the fruit and crumbling the cookies through nervous fingers.  Every time the door opened, all eyes in the room would skitter towards it like bugs to light; a few people would shudder, and finally the new arrival was left to hang up his or her coat.  More than one member was on medication.

It appeared to be a good day to Catherine.  Eighteen seats were filled in their circle, five more than the week before, and the doctor recognized a few faces she hadn’t seen in awhile.  Explanations for missed meetings ran anywhere from the normal things like doctor appointments and children’s dance recitals to spontaneous abductions, with the latter a more popular answer.  The consensus seemed to be if you were taken once, you were more likely to be taken again, and the erratic attendance of the group tended to support that theory.  Catherine sat up straight in her plastic chair and smiled a practiced, comforting smile.

“Welcome back, everyone.  It’s nice to see so many of you were able to make it today.  For those of you who are new to Abductees Anonymous, my name is Catherine, and I’ll be your group leader.”  A zombie chorus of Hello, Catherine sounded in the small basement, and she realized she was tired.  She worked full-time in a ward packed with patients suffering legitimate illnesses: diagnosed brain abnormalities that made them unable to interact and react to the world around them.  Yet even a full day at work never seemed to take as much of her energy as this two-hour meeting.

“Would anyone like to talk about their week?”  The structure of the group was largely discussion-based; open talking was encouraged and volunteering was always welcome.  Someone who walked in might have taken it to be any substance abuse meeting, but the stories were always much more interesting.  Not that Catherine ever talked about her side project with anyone.  She mostly kept it to herself—sometimes for considerate reasons, sometimes for selfish ones.

Quickly a hand was raised, and everyone turned to the woman to listen to her speak.  Margaret was small, almost bird-like in appearance, with yellowing bruises just visible beneath her short-sleeved blouse.  She was a frequent attendee, but in her life outside she worked as a school librarian.  Her desk was decorated with frogs, all sorts, and she described it for the room before continuing with her story.  It had been sitting there one evening after school, she said, that she was first taken.  She remembered a ray of light, as though someone had caught her in a search beacon, and being suddenly frozen to her seat, blinded by a flash with no clear point of entry.  Although she could imagine calling out for help her mouth wouldn’t move, and all she could do was stare into the lifeless eyes of her frogs.

And then she was free, just like that, with eleven minutes missing on her watch and bruises all over her body.

“Can’t say I was surprised; I’ve been expecting this for awhile now,” she said.  Margaret had begun attending after her first alien sighting, claiming it was only a matter of time until they returned for her.  “No, not surprised at all.”  She stated it matter-of-factly, but her shoulders shook, and while she received some nods from the others the elderly man beside her gave her arm a sympathetic pat.  Catherine recognized him as Frederick Little, an ex-war veteran who was abducted regularly every alternate Thursday.  He’d come to the meetings almost since they’d begun, right after his daughter had been killed during one of his episodes.  Police had ruled it a random mugging.  Fred didn’t like to talk about it.

Sneaking a look at her watch, Catherine considered the mass of paperwork she had at home, piles that decorated her desk like paper mache. Thanks to a profiling job she had done for the state, she was due in court the next morning, and a few more notes had to be typed before she would feel completely satisfied.  Her brain swam with vocabulary and half-formed statements, mentally compiling notes on her criminal cases, and she had to force herself to let it all go.  Ritchie Adams was talking, and she focused on the sound of his smoke-riddled voice to pull her back from her busy mind.  Her stomach growled, unhappy with the cookies and coffee in lieu of dinner.

“There were three,” Ritchie said, “staring at me, poking me with these long metal sticks, like the ones you use to roast marshmallows?  Pronged, like that.  It didn’t hurt none, just cold, and you know I wasn’t wearin’ anything.”

“What did they look like?” asked Lily McGowen, her eyes large and heavy in a pale face.  Catherine focused on the girl, only sixteen, prepared to intervene if she decided to faint.  It wouldn’t have been the first time, but Lily managed to pull herself together without assistance.

“Short and gray, buggy eyes, three on each side.  They never blinked, didn’t have eyelids, so they just stared at me the whole time.”  Ritchie, a large man, took a moment to cough violently into a handkerchief before continuing.  He had a brain tumor, inoperable.  Smoking never did me any harm, he liked to say to her sometimes, it was the probing that got me.  A retired New York mobster, Ritchie had been abducted shortly after his first ‘assignment’.  According to him he had been abducted no less than thirty times now, and each time by a different race of aliens.  Catherine noted the new short, gray, six-eyed species to her mental list.

When Ritchie had taken his seat, the sounds of his coughing a fading rasp, the doctor turned to the young man beside her.  He was new, his face almost motionless except for a slight tick in his right eye.  She wasn’t sure he noticed it, his gaze so transfixed by the door that she was surprised he hadn’t bolted yet.  Denial was a tempting alternative to talking.

“What about you, Dwayne?  Would you like to share anything?”

Dwayne looked like an average twenty-five year old, somewhat pinched by rapid growth but attractive, yet looks could be deceiving.  Almost nobody in attendance that afternoon looked like an abductee.  They looked like soccer moms and teenagers, overweight bankers and mail carriers.  The kind of people you waved to when you passed them on the street.

Nobody was wearing a tinfoil hat, or muttering loudly, or doing anything but drinking too much coffee.  There was no sign over their heads that said ‘Has been visited by extra-terrestrial beings,’ and yet they came every week, Tuesday at three, venting their stories to anyone willing to listen.  So while she thought Dwayne seemed like an average college graduate, maybe a member of the track team or a fan of action films, she was preparing herself to see what had brought him there.

He stood, awkwardly unfolding a tall frame from the plastic chair, and his face spoke plainly of his intense desire to be anywhere but where he was right at that moment.  A lot of people wore that expression, and not just the first time.  It was the face that asked, Why me?  Eyes that wished they could un-see whatever it was that had suddenly isolated them from their peers, from society at large, that had been so convincing that they were unable or unwilling to ignore it, or look for another explanation.

Dwayne seemed like the kind of guy who had already gone through every explanation in the book, and to his utter despair had come up with nothing but the writing on the wall.  Catherine was familiar with that look, and had seen it countless times on countless faces, so she was surprised to find her hand was wrapped so tightly around her pen that the knuckles were colorless.

If she had been asked to give a name to the feeling she had suddenly experienced, it would have been ‘apprehension’.

“It started about two months ago, with the dreams.”  If he had been afraid that no one would take him seriously, he suddenly found himself the object of intense concentration, as every one of the eighteen listeners hung on his every syllable.  He took a step back, bumped into the chair, and continued.  “I was working on an essay, for my graduate class.  I study math.”  The statement was held up like a shield, as if to prove he must be telling the truth, because what math major in their right mind would be there right now?  “I’m not… I’m not a creative person.  I don’t see things.  But my dreams were so vivid.  So real.  I thought they were just like that because of my stress, you know?  Maybe I had some bad meatloaf for dinner.  Anything.”

He lifted his glasses to rub his eyes, then the bridge of his nose.  “But it just kept coming back.  I was five… In the dream.  In the dream I was five, and I was at my grandparent’s farm back in Pennsylvania.  It was really hot, too hot to sleep, so I snuck out and decided to go back to the barn.  They didn’t have a lot of animals, just a cow and a couple of sheep,” he rambled, as if these details would be important for the quiz later.  “I felt so bad-ass, thinking I could get caught at any time.  I wasn’t going to do anything, just sit out in the barn by myself.  It was dark, really dark, the kind where you can’t see anything, and I was just about to go back inside.  That’s when it happens.”

“What happens?” edged Lily, practically ghostly with suspense as she nibbled the ends of her hair.  Dwayne looked at her as if she had only just materialized, as if he were struggling through water in a heavy fog, and Catherine realized she was holding her own breath.  She was remembering, remembering  someone else with a similar story.  Someone she hadn’t seen in a long time.

“There was some sort of green light.  It was coming through the cracks in the barn, all around me.  I had no idea what was going on.  The animals started… screaming (they were screaming, Catherine, like they already knew what was going on, and I just stood there,  just stood and let it happen, like I couldn’t think), that’s the only word I can come up with for it.  I’m lucky I wasn’t trampled, ‘cause they’re all slamming against their pens, trying to get out, but the light just totally paralyzes me.”

He was rushing the words, like ripping off a band-aid, getting it out before he forgot, or maybe before he lost his nerve altogether.  “There’s a shape in the doorway, a really tall skinny shape I can’t make out because it’s dark.  I want to go back, I want my mom, and I’m wishing I never left my bed.  Something went through my head, like a high-pitched frequency, and that was when the spell broke.  I ran,” he finished bitterly, “I just ran after that.”  Dwayne choked on the last word, on the verge of tears, and with a watery sigh he simply fell back in his chair.  Solemn eyes followed his descent.  “It was a dream.  I knew that.  Know that.  I didn’t… I haven’t told anyone about it, till now.  I can remember the night, not from the dream but from my memories.  I remember sneaking out of the house, being in the barn.  I remember because the next morning my grandpa found the animals mutilated.  They were all dead, and the enclosures had all been trashed, completely trashed.  Like they were trying to escape.”

His breath hitched in small gasps, and he burrowed his face in his hands, the force of whatever emotions he battled too strong to hold.

Catherine’s logical mind knew animal mutilation stories were frequently associated with UFO sightings and other phenomena.  Still, how long had it been since a story like this, so similar?  So long that I’d almost forgotten.  Now the memories, and the pain, returned to her like the ache of an old wound.  It was as if she’d had an amnesia so deep she didn’t realize she had it, not until it all came hammering back, and the feeling was like sitting too long in one spot until your arm fell asleep, or your leg, or maybe your heart.

Abruptly, she stood, looking out over the group of voyeurs who were waiting for the next installment of Dwayne’s captivating recollection.

“Why don’t we take our break now?” she heard herself say, and then she broke the circle to shuffle the papers she had left on the small stage at the back.  Given no choice but to wait, people reluctantly rose, lining up at the refreshment table to re-fill their Styrofoam cups full of coffee.

Catherine could remember Nathan now, as if he had seen him two days ago instead of two years.  The fact that she had forgotten him at all frightened her badly, and she stared down at her hands.  There were purplish crescent-shaped nicks in the palms where her nails had dug in.

She and Nathan had worked together at the hospital nearly a year before they ever started talking.  He was handsome, bookishly so, with an unkempt look that was more charming than messy.  It would have been impossible not to notice, despite her deep professionalism.   Nathan was brilliant as well; it didn’t take more than a few minutes of talking with him to realize it.  Not just in the IQ sort of way, but in a human way as well.  He knew what to say, and how to say it.  He had worked for five years as a criminal profiler, a very good one, then transferred to her unit mysteriously without any explanation.

Nobody seemed to know anything about Nathan that wasn’t in his file.  He was a walking Nowhere Man, with no past and no discernible future beyond the time you saw him.  Catherine had immediately respected him as a colleague.  She’d been working with the criminally insane for almost four years before he arrived, but she learned more from him in their short acquaintance than she ever had alone.  Then, for no reason she could fathom, he had cornered her in the lab one day.

“Doctor Hemp,” he had said, then appeared almost as surprised as she was when she turned around.  Catherine remembered the sensation of her pulse beating furiously in her throat at the dark eyes, a stormy grey, which were fixed on her so completely that it seemed like, for the first time, he was really noticing she was there.  It was the oddest feeling.  Am I here?  She had thought for one wild moment.

Whatever he was going to say, however, seemed to slide back down his throat, and it was replaced with a smile that made her feel silly for her earlier reaction.  “Are you hungry?”  They bought sandwiches from the hospital cafeteria, coffee from a cart outside, and took them over to a nearby cluster of benches to eat.  In all her time working there Catherine had never taken in this view, but Nathan looked comfortable, as if frequently spent his lunch break in that same spot.  He looked at peace with whatever inner decision had caused him to call out to her, and he waited a few moments in the sunshine before turning to her casually.

“Catherine, what do you know about abductions?”  Nathan asked, blowing on his coffee to cool it.  Surprised, the conversational starter not at all what she had been expecting, she quirked a brow.  He looked content, perfectly rational, almost bored.

“Like kidnappings?” she said doubtfully, finishing her sandwich and crumpling the wrapper.

“Sort of.  I’m thinking less… earthly, though.”  He’d hardly eaten anything, but set it all aside and seemed to promptly forget about it.

“Alien abductions?
“Now you sound skeptical.”  He wasn’t being judgmental, she knew, just stating a fact.

“It’s not a question someone hears every day,” Catherine countered, wishing that if it were a joke she could see the punch line.  “Not much, I guess.  They happen a lot in corn fields, and involve probing.”  At that he laughed, and she thought it was safe to smile.  She was twenty-nine, and she had never spent a single moment up till then thinking about aliens.  Not long after, they seemed to become her life.

After that first day he didn’t mention the subject again, not for a long while.  They continued to eat together on the benches, an unspoken ritual, and they often worked the same shift and consulted the same patients.  In a career which very rarely lent itself to happy moments or deep friendship, Catherine found herself being able to open up to Nathan.  He had a quality that made you want to tell him things about yourself, because you knew that he would listen.  Sometimes it was almost scary how much she could reveal, but she always felt better for it.  Work had become such a part of her life that she didn’t even realize she was lonely until she had Nathan to talk to.

Of course, there were moments when he would completely vanish without warning.  Not physically, but mentally.  She might be talking to him about a patient, or briefing him on a new method of treatment, and there he would go.  It concerned her, and she asked him about it frequently, but he would gently shrug her off in the mild but effective way he had of deflecting questions.

Then, when she had finally stopped asking, he told her about his abduction.  How he had been tagged at birth, the incident when he was small with his family’s animals, and finally that he had spent nearly five years—between the ages of twenty and twenty-five– living aboard a space craft.  “You wouldn’t believe it, Catherine.  You’re so logical, so literal-minded, I don’t know how I could ever explain to you the things I’ve seen.  The things I’ve done.”  But he tried, and to her amazement she came to realize she actually believed him.  Maybe it was because he was Nathan, and because she wanted to believe he wasn’t crazy.  Maybe a part of her thought his story was due to some trauma in his life, and she didn’t mind allowing it to manifest as an alien abduction.  Or maybe she spent so much of her time around people who were genuinely sick, whose delusions ran deeper and more intricately than medicine could ever hope to cure, that she could tell a psychotic patient from a tired man.

When he finished, the lines in his face more startlingly pronounced than ever and his body more tired than she had ever seen, she tried desperately to think of the right thing to say.  What could she offer?  He had shared something so fantastic, so compelling, yet so… alienating.  He had, she realized, told her something he had never told anyone before.   “After all that you’ve been through…  How can you stand having that story inside you?  Knowing that almost nobody could ever really believe you?” she finally asked.

There was a light in his eyes, soft and grey and timeless, and his answer stuck with her like a song she couldn’t seem to forget, one she had somehow lost for a time,

“Because there has to be something after the probe.”

The small gymnasium seemed claustrophobic, and Catherine found herself almost desperate to see the afternoon sun outside the brick walls of the building.  Worn, tired from the waves of memory, she made her way back to her seat, watched the way her shadow played on the star-patterned tiles of the floor.  There has to be something after the probe.  Abductees Anonymous had been formed in honor of Nathan Sedgewick, the man who had called her early one morning at to tell her he was being summoned again.

“What do you mean, summoned?” she’d tried to say coherently into the phone, pulled from sleep and feeling jittery, heart a quickening thud on her breastbone.  “Is it the hospital?”

“They want me back,” Nathan had said, strangely calm in the midst of her adrenaline-fueled delirium.  He sounded almost relieved, like someone who’d been living in fear their entire life only to be told the day of reckoning was at hand.  There was nothing they could do, but the knowledge was a comfort.  “I’m not sure how long this time…  Maybe you won’t even notice I’m gone.  But if you do, I don’t want you to worry.  It’ll be alright.”

Then the line went dead, and despite staying up the rest of the night Catherine couldn’t reach him again.  That had been nearly a year and a half ago, and no one had heard from him since.  Of course missing person’s reports had been filed, but the doctor had noticed an odd thing—as time passed, those who had also worked with Nathan seemed more and more inclined to forget him.  After just a year almost nobody at their hospital could remember a Doctor Sedgewick, even with prompting.  That was when she knew he was gone, knew for certain he’d been taken somewhere he wouldn’t be easily found.  The next day, she had proposed her idea for an abduction group.

Looking around at those present, Catherine realized all of these people were like Nathan in some way, whether they had truly experienced an alien encounter or only believed they had.  Maybe it really didn’t matter.  If they could be helped, even by just listening… Well, hadn’t that really been the point all along?  Nathan had never seemed to want anything more than a single person who knew his story before he disappeared.  She felt a squeeze and embraced the pain, thankful to have it back again, accepting that she had been holding his memory to herself.  Maybe she had wanted to keep him that way, the way she remembered, or to honor his secret, but he wouldn’t have wanted that.  Not if he thought it might help someone else.

Maybe he had known that about her, and that was why he had singled her out.  The work she had piled up seemed less important, less urgent than it had before.  There had to be something beyond the work, beyond the struggle, beyond the event itself.  Nathan had known that.  And now, she thought briskly, it was time to pass it on.

She could see Dwayne out of the corner of her eye, and Catherine felt sorry for him.  He didn’t know how to live with what he had seen, now that he remembered it.  It was obvious he hadn’t come to the meeting to be reassured that he wasn’t crazy—at least not exactly.  It might have been that he thought she had a quick fix, a pill or remedy to make it go away, really go away.  Mostly he had come to be told he was insane– because at least that thought would fit into his orderly mind, would fit into his idea of The World Until Now.

But Catherine couldn’t tell him that, not for certain, not in the way he needed.  Nathan’s story was all she had to give.  She hoped that Dwayne could find solace in that…  In knowing there could be something else beyond this moment.  Beyond the next.

“I hope you all had a good break,” she told them, and meant it.  She didn’t feel tired anymore, or hopeless.  “I think I have a story I want to share with all of you.  It’s about someone very close to me, someone I knew once.  His name was Nathan… and he was an abductee.”  Catherine had never spoken about her own experience, but at last she stood, and she let herself be one of them.



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