Escape Artist

By Witt Widhalm

T

HE GROUP OF THEM huddled together about fifteen feet away from us. I couldn’t hear anything, but it looked as though they were having a very animated discussion. Limbs were going every which way, and one of them seemed to disagree with the others. Apparently they brought him around, because they broke the huddle and approached our group.

The one with the box spoke. “We have reached our decision.” Then the speaker approached me. “You have been chosen. Would you come with us?”

All eyes in both groups turned my way. Me? Why me?

* * *

Early Escapes

I’d been an escape artist all of my life. Friends called me Houdini. By escape artist, I don’t mean that I got out of locked chains or handcuffs or anything like that. My escape was from reality. And I was good at it. I ranked right up there with Walter Mitty. Except Walter always had daydreams. I guess that made him better than me. I needed outside assistance. Like television.

I’d used TV to escape since I was very young. There weren’t many kids my age in my neighborhood growing up, and I wasn’t on the most popular list with the ones that were there. So, to pass the time, I watched a lot of TV. I remember all the TV shows from the Seventies. I don’t mean just the big hits like Charlie’s Angels or Starsky and Hutch. I remember shows like Get Christie Love, about a black woman private eye; Quark, about a garbage skow in space; CPO Sharkey, Don Rickles umpteenth cancelled sitcom; and The McLean Stevenson show, his first. I watched the Carol Burnett Show almost every Saturday night for eleven years. It was easier than trying to get a date.

I read a lot, too. Books were a great help in my escapes. I especially liked sports and mystery stories. I even read Gone with the Wind for an eighth grade book report. Talk about a kid who needed a life.

I used to play monopoly all by myself. I was all four players, the race car, the dog, the thimble and the horse. I rooted for the race car. I once played an entire twelve-team league of football in my backyard by myself. I also learned more games of solitaire than most people realize exist.

* * *

My Biggest Escape

Eventually, my escapism caused me some problems. After high school I entered college. High school had always been easy for me. College wasn’t. So, did I knuckle down, hit the books and try harder? Heck, no. I escaped. By now I was getting pretty good. I still watched TV, but there was so much more available in college. Sports. Girls. Beer. Marijuana. I had a hard time sometimes deciding which escape to use. So I used them all. Sports probably the most. Girls probably the least. Not by my choice, by theirs.

I found a new way to waste hours as well as money. Arcades. It started with Asteroids. I was a pro. Then Space Invaders. But my favorite was Moon Cresta. Every night after dinner I played Moon Cresta with some fellow arcade junkies I met. I got so good I could play for an hour on the same quarter. At least my skill at the game saved me a little money.

And I still read books, but my selections switched to sci-fi and fantasy. My favorites were the alternate reality stories. You know, the ones where the hero disappears into an alternate universe that’s similar but oh so much better than this one. Like Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber or Den in the Heavy Metal movie. I always hoped I could find one of those alternate worlds and escape from my problems permanently. No such luck.

Surprisingly, it took me five years to get kicked out of college.

* * *

Can’t Escape

I stumbled through the next couple of years of my life aimlessly. I couldn’t hold a job for very long. I was too bored to stay and to irresponsible to care. Somehow I managed to pay my bills, but I was barely keeping my head above water. The escaping increased. HBO was a godsend. Thirty or forty different movies a month for only $7.95. Split three ways with roommates. Less than ten cents a movie, and I did my best to get my money’s worth.

Then I met Wanda. She was a beautiful woman. She was smart, out-going, fun-loving and at night she liked to party. That was OK by me. More beer, more pot. I fell in love with Wanda.

Only problem was, during the day she was one of those people who worked for a living and, worse yet, she wanted me to be one too. She got tired of my never ending escapes. She wanted me to stop escaping, get a job and face reality. I hated her for that. I fought with her for four years over it. I’m not sure why she stuck with me, but she did. And I finally gave in. I got a 9 to 5 as a bookkeeper, I’d always been good with numbers. Just less than a year ago, at age twenty-seven, we got married.

We honeymooned in Vegas. An escape artist’s dream. A million things to do and open twenty-four hours. Of course, they all cost money, a luxury we really couldn’t afford at the time. Slots are incredibly addictive. Never hit fourteen. Roulette is a sucker’s game. And in Craps money flows in and out faster than water. But all in all we had a good time, and besides it only lasted for four days before we had to go back. We had to return to our new home. A month before the wedding we had closed a deal on a house in a remote residential neighborhood.

The neighbors were mostly nice. George and Emma Timmons, in their early sixties, were our next door neighbors to the west. To the east lived Tom and Sandra Williams. They were in their early thirties, he was a drug abuse counselor and she was a housewife. They also had a four-year-old son. Jerry Thompkins and his wife lived across the street. They were in their early fifties, he was a microbiology professor, she was a snoop but a good-hearted one. Next door to them were Dave and Deb Longley. They were fitness freaks and always seemed to be working out. They had two children, Andy and Lisa, both incredibly overbearing. Didn’t care for the brats, whenever I saw them coming I immediately reverted to escape mode and disappeared.

There were three other houses in the neighborhood, but I never knew their owners. Two were owned by retired couples who traveled extensively; they were almost never home. And the house on the corner was owned by an elderly couple, the Simonsens; they almost never ventured past their front porch.

Shortly after we returned from our honeymoon a wonderful thing happened. My wife got pregnant. We had a baby girl named Amanda. Of course I had to learn to deal with dirty diapers, and there were some sleepless nights trying to get Amanda to drink her bottle and go back to sleep. But they were worth it. I never had a better feeling than the one I got when we were all alone in the middle of the night and Amanda would fall asleep in my arms. I used to just sit there and hold her long after she was asleep. The love, trust and innocence in her face never ceased to amaze me. This little girl was going to look up to me and expect me to know all the answers. Talk about pressure. And she was going to call me Daddy. It was enough to make me want to cry. I did, once.

It looked as though my escape days were over. I had become a husband and a father with a family to care for. The closest thing to escapism in my life was betting a beer with my buddy on this week’s football games. The house and the yard kept me so busy I barely watched TV anymore. The only time I had to read was when I took the newspaper with me into the bathroom. No more Houdini.

Then they came.

* * *

The Greatest Escape of All

It was around five o’clock on a beautiful autumn Saturday afternoon. I’d just finished getting my football fix for the day. Wanda was baking chicken in the kitchen and Amanda was with me in the living room. She was on the floor, trying to learn to crawl and getting pretty frustrated. She’d get up on all fours and push with her legs, only to fall flat on her face because she didn’t know enough to move her arms forward. It was cute as long as she didn’t hurt herself. I was watching the scoreboard show, trying to figure out if I owed my buddy or he owed me. That’s when it started.

There was this tremendous roar. It reminded me of the time I was at an airport and somebody mistakenly opened a door to the airstrip right after a jet had started its engines. And the roar just went on and on. Amanda started crying and wouldn’t stop. I swiftly picked her up and hurried her into the kitchen. I gave her to Wanda with orders for them to stay inside. Then I headed out to see what was going on. The roar stopped as I reached the front door.

They had landed in the intersection to the east, right next to the Simonsen place. It was an alien spacecraft. At least, I assumed it was spaceworthy and it certainly didn’t look like humans had made it. It covered the entire intersection from north to south and actually extended into the road about another car length in each direction. If it was also centered from east to west, and it appeared to be, then it was about four feet wider than the two lane road it occupied at its widest point. It looked like the top half of a football without the threads. Its four legs, two on either end, were roughly six feet high. They ended in wheels the size of those funny looking thin spare tires they give you with some new cars. The top of the craft was at least as high as the tops of the one-story houses in the neighborhood, perhaps even five to ten feet higher. The entire thing, wheels included, was an odd shade of gray. Odd because whenever you tried to focus your eyes on a particular point it seemed to be a bright white color, but what you saw with your peripheral vision was black. If you looked at the whole thing in general without trying to focus on anything, it appeared to be a hazy gray. Reminded me of watching the old black and white TV we’d had when I was in college. Only with a hangover, something else I’d done one or two dozen times.

The entire neighborhood was peaking out their front door, same as I was. No one was too sure what to do. Then some kind of hatch or door opened and they came out.

There were five of them. They were humanoid and bipedal, roughly four and a half feet tall. They were some sort of an off-white shade, and they appeared to be covered with some kind of fluid substance. In fact, everything about them seemed pretty fluid. Their heads looked like a normal human head with an additional growth in the back. Just above the eyes the forehead expanded about two inches all the way around, looking almost like a living helmet of the creamy white fluid. There was nothing resembling hair anywhere on their bodies. One of them had a small black box somehow attached to its chest. I couldn’t help thinking of a Japanese tourist with his camera. They had no ears, or at least nothing that looked like ears. Their eyes were completely gray, there was no white part and if they had irises or pupils they were the identical shade of gray. Their arms and legs were thin, almost childlike. They had no knees or elbows. Their arms, which nearly reached to the ground, bent wherever they wanted. This last bit I noticed as they beckoned us to come out. They crooked their arms and waved us out, and each of them bent its arm in a different place. It was a bit unnerving.

I looked over at Jerry. He shrugged and stepped outside. I decided I couldn’t let one fifty-plus year old man save the world by himself, so I stepped outside as well. We met in the middle of the street. I spoke first. “Now what do we do?”

His response was, “I don’t know about you, but I’m really curious to see what they’re like. Let’s go find out.” Damn biology professor and his professional curiosity. But I didn’t have any better ideas, so we turned and headed for the corner. If they were going to attack us we were in trouble. We were armed solely with our wits, which pretty much left Jerry on his own.

When the rest of the neighborhood saw us, most of the rest of the men came out as well. So much for equality of the sexes. George and Dave both started out of their houses. Tom was out of town on business. I noticed George had a handgun and Dave had a baseball bat. I doubted Dave and his baseball bat could do much damage to a race of beings with the technology to travel between the stars. The same seemed likely for George and his handgun. And George was usually pretty sensible. I just hoped he stayed that way and didn’t start anything.

The walk to the intersection had never taken so long. I moved my feet like an ice skater, sliding forward about a yard at a time. I was afraid to lift them off the ground for fear I wouldn’t be able to jump out of the way when something happened. I wasn’t sure I wanted to do this. Every step of the way I expected disaster. Ray guns would start blasting. Jerry was going to disintegrate before my eyes. Invisible aliens would appear from nowhere and overwhelm us (like we were really going to put up much of a fight, the four of us.) Every second of the walk was an exercise in fear. Imagination is not always such a wonderful thing, and with all the TV shows, books and movies in my past I could imagine quite a lot. Halfway there I asked Jerry as we went, “Do you think we really want to do this? Are you sure we’ll be safe?”

Jerry always had an answer for everything. “Would we be any safer waiting for them to come into our homes and get us?” I hated him for always being right.

Due to my fears, I lagged about a half step behind Jerry on the walk. Our incredibly long trip-the length of two houses-passed uneventfully, at least until we got within about twenty feet. At that point one of them held up a hand as if to signal us to stop. We did so, and George and Dave caught up with us quickly. Meanwhile the aliens started conversing among themselves.

The group of them huddled together about fifteen feet away from us. I couldn’t hear anything, but it looked as though they were having a very animated discussion. Limbs were going every which way, and one of them seemed to disagree with the others. Apparently they brought him around, because they broke the huddle and approached our group.

The one with the box spoke. “We have reached our decision.” Then the speaker approached me. “You have been chosen. Would you come with us?”

All eyes in both groups turned my way. Me? Why me?

And where were you guys five years ago when I needed you?

* * *

To Escape or Not to Escape

That’s not really what the alien said. The alien said something unintelligible. Its voice was high pitched and it whistled a lot. The box on its chest translated it into English. When I spoke there was a short delay while the box whistled and hooted something to them.

“Why do you want me to come with you?” Emphasis on the “me.” For years I’d dreamed of an opportunity like this. Now I had the chance, but I also had a wife and daughter I loved very much, and I was no longer in such a hurry to escape anywhere.

The alien started whistling and the box said, “We’ve been watching Earth creatures for many of your years. We feel now it is time to meet you. We want you to come with us so we may learn more about you.” Then the alien pointed one of its three fingers at the alien that had seemed to disagree. “In exchange—,” then there was something the box could not translate, apparently a name, “will stay with you so that you may learn about us.”

No wonder he’d argued. “But why me? This seems like something the government should handle.”

The alien spoke and the box went on, “We want honest answers, not learned responses from government—,” there was another word the box could not translate, but I caught the meaning.

Jerry spoke up. “Why did you choose this place to make contact?” I noticed the box had a pause in translating this question the same as before. Apparently it did alien-to-English better than English-to-alien.

The aliens spoke among themselves, then the speaker replied, “I’m not certain what your question is, but I will try to answer. We chose this town because it is large enough to have the type of representative we seek. We chose this area because it is distant enough that we can talk before the government arrives.” That was a good point. In this remote little housing edition they could stay for days and no one would know they were here if we didn’t tell anyone. For me it was part of the appeal, I could escape to home and leave the rest of the world behind. Something’s never change.

Before I gave them an answer I wanted to know one thing. “But why me? Jerry here is the smartest of the bunch, and Dave is in much better physical condition. I’m out of shape and at least thirty IQ points below Jerry. What makes me your choice to represent Earthlings?”

At this Dave spoke up, “Hey, leave me out of this. I want nothin’ to do with a bunch of aliens that want to take me away and never bring me back.”

The alien answered him, “You need not worry. We have no interest in you. You are an excellent physical specimen, but intellectually you would not interest us in the least.” Well, that was one thing the aliens and I had in common. The leader turned his attention back to me. “You will not represent all Earthlings, just Americans. We are also making contact in many other countries. Most Americans are, as you say, out of shape. As for intelligence, you are above average, just not a genius like your companion. We have found in the past that creatures that exceed a certain intelligence level waste our time trying to prove how much they know to us, rather than trying to learn from us. Your companion is more intelligent than we are looking for.”

So that means I’m smart enough, but dumb enough. Great. Jerry interrupted my latest train of thought with his next question for the aliens. “How can you know this? Are you able to read our minds?”

“We cannot read your thoughts, we are merely able to scan your brain activity with this.” It touched the box. Helluva box, EKG and translation device in one. “We cannot tell what your thoughts are, but we can estimate your intelligence.”

Something I heard earlier had gotten trapped in the back of my thoughts. It suddenly escaped unheeded. “Is what Dave said about never coming back true?”

The alien answered, “No, we would return you to your home.”

That was nice to know, but, “How soon would I be back?”

“Once you have ceased to be useful, or ceased to exist. Whichever occurs first.” That wasn’t what I wanted to hear.

Now George spoke up. “What about me? I’d be willing to go.”

The alien turned to him. “You are too advanced in age. Space travel is difficult physically, and we have a great distance to travel. We fear you would cease to exist before we reached our home planet.” We could hear sirens off in the distance. Someone must have called 911, probably the Simonsens. And they’d have had to make up a story, since claiming aliens had landed wouldn’t bring anyone in a hurry.

The spokesman turned back to me. “Our time is almost expired. Would you come with us?”

* * *

No Escape

So here I stand, surrounded by lifeforms from two different planets and completely alone with my thoughts. Both groups are staring at me, awaiting my response. As I glance back at our house, I see the worry on my wife’s face and the love and trust in my baby girl’s as they look out at me through the screen door. From this distance she couldn’t possibly have heard what was being said, yet my wife still has a look of concern on her face, almost as if she knows the dilemma I face and fears my choice.

As the sirens get nearer the aliens grow impatient for an answer. However, there is still one question that remains unanswered.

Can you tell aliens no?

_____________________

Witt’s real name is Robert John Widhalm. He prefers Witt, though many people still call him Bob.  Robert is not a popular choice. It’s only used when he‘s done something wrong or he owes someone money.

Witt was born a long time ago in a galaxy not far away. Norfolk, Nebraska to be precise.  And he’s a stickler, the town is pronounced NOR-fork.  He’s an avid Husker fan; he’s on every email list sponsored by the Husker Athletic Office. So if you ever need to know how the Husker Bowling team or Rifle Shoot squads are doing, he’s your man. And if you ever want to see a grown man cry, ask him how the Oakland Raiders are doing these days.

He’s also an avid reader, particularly Roger Zelazny and Jim Butcher.  Despite his affinity for Zelazny’s Dilvish the Damned and Butcher’s Harry Dresden, he rates Dune as the single best book he’s ever read.

And he says he’s the father of two incredibly, wonderfully, fantastically beautiful daughters, but he’s known to be a bit biased.  His favorite way to spend a Friday night is with his daughters, a bowl of popcorn and a B sci-fi movie, the B-er the better.


One Response to “Escape Artist”

  1. lapia says:

    A cute story, but a frustrating read. If ailens are going to appear, as in a fantasy or sci-fy genre, I prefer to know it much earlier on. The “Chapter Headings” were an interesting guide, almost a necessary one. You placed the protagonist in the middle of his own two worlds, imaginary and reality, quite successfully with the ailen metaphor. That was nicely done.