Hi guys! Rob here, welcome back, I’ve got a little holiday treat for you…
This story was inspired by a video I saw, yes, it was one of those days you don’t know how, but you wind up an hour later watching a YouTube video of someone driving around what looks like a ghost town, right near Area 51 in Nevada. It’s a real town, called Silver Peak, and the video gives you this creepy feeling, and so of course I thought, “What secret might be hiding in this town?” Then, I don’t know why, I got the idea that a mash-up of Bridges of Madison County would be fun. And then I heard a holiday song on the radio or something, and thought, “Oooh, even better: I’ll make it a Christmas story!” Enjoy.
Listen to the Audio (29 min):
Read the Story (4,900 words / 18-minute read):
“Christmas in Silver Peak”
Written and narrated by Rob Dircks
“Cherokee three-three-charlie-romeo. Having a helluva time here. Anybody out there?”
Henry pulled the yoke back, straining to keep altitude. The radio offered no solution to his weather problem, and he gulped when after an endless minute it offered him no response at all. An hour ago the sky was blue and the winds out of the northwest were three knots, perfect for a Christmas Eve delivery actually, and now he had a freak storm on him, and man that wind, and the GPS was going wonky, and he couldn’t even hail a single soul on the radio.
A flash of light blinded him.
A sound like an atomic bomb deafened him.
Then darkness, as his eyes adjusted to the dim cabin and his ears came back online.
Was that lightning?
Another crack of light and sound off to his right, just fifty yards away.
“Shit! Mayday! Mayday! Descending fast, I’m one-zero miles from… somewhere. Mayday!”
Nothing. Radio one was down. He tried radio two. Nothing.
He scanned the dash and confirmed: the lightning strike had shorted his instruments. He was going to have to land. NOW. But where the hell was he?
He quickly rifled through his flight bag, snatching the sectional charts – quickly thanking whatever god made him so anal-retentive – and spread one out in front of him as he fought to keep the Piper Cherokee in the air. He’d flown this route so many times he had the general map in his head, shuttling new planes like this from Fort Worth out to clients on the west coast every few weeks, like this little two-thousand pound Christmas present from a tech CEO to her husband, another tech CEO, which, of course, had to be delivered by Christmas.
He wondered if he should have something better to do on Christmas, someone to be with, but his sister was in New Jersey, and he couldn’t remember the last time they talked, and Sherry, well, he immediately forced that rat’s nest of memories back down where it belonged, now wasn’t the time to dredge the bottom. Back to the chart. Where was he?
To the north were hills, and a large lake, no… he looked out the window. “Not a lake, man-made. Whatever. That’s it. Okay, here I am. Now let’s see where I’m putting down.” He ran a shaking finger along the map, south, surprised to find a little illustration someone had drawn directly in his path.
A little cartoon of a U.F.O. With a smiley face. And antennae.
Terrific. He was going to have to land in Area 51.
Right next to the little cartoon designating Area 51 was a town, the town he was about to land in whether he liked it or not, whether the government allowed it or shot people out of the sky for trying, its name printed in the smallest type he had ever seen. A microscopic town you’d never notice. Silver Peak.
Oh well. At least the chart says it’s got an air strip.
He peered back out the window, through the torrential rain, looking for anything, runway lights, a tower, something. Wait. There. He muttered to himself, “They call that an air strip?”
A tiny patch of pavement rose up at him, fast. He quickly trimmed back to neutral, slowing down to 65 knots. This was going to be a short field landing in a storm, his least favorite thing as a pilot, using full flaps, dragging the airplane in with power, then cutting it a few feet off the ground. He gulped again, wrenching the yoke to keep the wind from smashing him into the ground and ending his tender thirty-eight-year-old life. He thought for a moment about death, and for the first time regretted never settling down and starting a family. If he died out here he’d leave nothing behind except the loan on that new truck and a one-bedroom condo. He never even got to fall in love, not really. Where had all the time gone?
The wheels smacked down and jerked Henry back to the present. Gravel crunched under the tires as he realized this was no air strip, it was a parking lot, complete with painted lines and a couple of old cars and even an overturned shopping cart, and he yanked the brakes and skidded to the very end, with an inch or two to spare.
Henry mopped his forehead, his heart hammering away, his body pumping adrenalin like mad, begging him to run. Finally, after a few deep breaths, he sighed. “Well, Henry. That’s why they call you Ace.” He laughed out loud, admitting to himself that they really only called him Ace because he could hit the trash bin with a balled up piece of paper from across the pilot’s lounge.
Looking out the window, at the “town” in air quotes, he could make out through the rain a little trailer, maybe it was a radio station, or the police station, or the post office, or all three. And as he ran through the downpour, he could see books on shelves, and thought maybe it was the town library, too.
Whatever it was, it was locked. Damn. He stood under the little tin canopy, listening to the rat-a-tat of the rain and the howling wind, cringing at the occasional lightning, assessing his options. He was wet to his bones. He hated being wet. He really hated it.
Off to the left – he couldn’t tell what direction just yet – was one road, saddled by a few trailers on either side, that stretched out into infinity. He didn’t see a single car, streetlight, not even a dog, though he couldn’t blame any stray dogs for hiding at the moment. Ahead of him lay the second – and only other – road, again dotted with trailers and disappearing into the distance. But this one had a two-story structure of some sort, and he half-grinned at the thought that at home this structure wouldn’t even warrant a second glance, would be virtually invisible, but here it loomed so large it seemed to have its own gravitational pull. It even had a pickup parked out front.
He ran for it.
On the way, he was startled to find someone – a woman – kneeling by the rear of the truck, on the driver’s side. A flat tire. She was setting to fix it, moving the jack into position, in the pouring rain, challenging a lightning bolt to strike her dead, like it was nothing at all.
Henry waved his arms, trying to get her attention and not scare her, but she was focused on that tire. So he shouted above the storm, “Excuse me, miss? Can’t that wait? Until it lets up a bit? There’s lightning. And you’re getting drenched.”
She finally looked up at him, half-smiling, as if he’d been there all along. “It doesn’t bother me. I like the rain. Water is life.”
Huh. What a strange thing to say, he thought. The very first thing she says to a total stranger is some basic universal affirmation. “Well, miss, in that case, we’re definitely living right now.” He looked up and let the rain pelt his face. “Living big.”
She patted his shoulder. “See? You’re already catching on.” Turning back to the jack, she cranked it until the truck started to rise, ever so slowly. For some reason he expected her to ask for his help, like a woman might do in the movies, the damsel in distress beseeching the kind stranger who just rolled into town to save her. But he already knew she wasn’t that woman from the movies. She was different.
“Can I help, miss?”
“Only if you want. Or you could hop in the cab and dry off a little while I finish up.”
He was ashamed to admit to himself that her idea sounded wonderful, to be dry and warm, and be taken care of in a strange, unfamiliar place, and he laughed at the thought that he was the damsel in distress.
“What are you laughing at, mister, ah…?”
“Henry. Henry Blake. I’m not laughing at you though. I’m laughing at myself. It’s only been two minutes and you’ve already exposed me.”
It was her turn to laugh. “Imagine what I could do in an hour.”
He blushed – God, when was the last time he blushed? – And handed her the tire iron, and she loosened the bolts and lifted off the tire. Soon, they were both in the pickup, dripping wet but victorious.
She wiped off her hand with a rag and offered it to him. “A pleasure, Henry. I’d say I couldn’t have done it without you, but that would be a lie. You did shave off a few minutes, though, so from the bottom of my heart I thank you.”
Henry took her hand and gave it a little shake. “I have never received such a gracious back-handed compliment, and for that, from the bottom of my own heart, I thank you, miss…”
“Mae. It’s short for something very long, so everyone calls me Mae. Except my husband. Knows me so well he doesn’t even need to say my name, just a wink and a nod’ll do. Now Henry, about your little travel problem…” She checked her mirrors, as if traffic might suddenly appear, and pulled out onto the deserted road. “…it looks like you won’t be staying at the Silver Peak Inn tonight.”
“Because there isn’t a Silver Peak Inn.” She threw her head back and laughed to herself.
His thumb pointed back to the two-story building as it disappeared from sight in his rear view mirror. “That’s not a motel? It kind of looks like one.”
“Nope. That’s where we keep the spaceship.”
Henry laughed. “Oh, right. The whole Area 51 thing. Wouldn’t that be kind of obvious though? Parking UFOs right in the middle of Main Street?”
“You’d be surprised what gets hidden in plain sight, Henry.” She looked around, as if spies might be in the back seat, then leaned over and whispered, “Take me, for example.”
He chanced a glance at her, she had given him permission, hadn’t she? She was strong and sinewy, like what he imagined a frontier woman would look like, obviously self-sufficient, taking care of business, telling things exactly the way they were, not caring what she looked like, soaked to the bone, hair matted down onto her face, a quite nice-looking face if he dared say so, her eyes staring straight into his. She stopped the truck right in the middle of the road. “Well?”
“Well, aren’t you going to ask me what I’m hiding?”
“Excuse me for saying, Mae, but you don’t look like you could hide anything at all, even if you tried. Like, what you see is what you get. Am I right?”
She considered him, a kind of agonizing consideration, scrunching up her face like a thought was trying to escape through her mouth and she was fighting it. But out it came.
“You know what? It’s time, Henry Blake. You’re right, it’s time to get what you see. Mother Nature must’ve sent you down here for a reason. So it’s time I told you.”
The hair stood up on the back of his neck instantly, he didn’t know exactly why. Was it fear? Was this like some shocking moment from a movie where a knife comes out and that’s the end? He tried to rub the hairs down. “Ah, told me, ah…?”
He could hardly hear her say it, that’s how low her whisper was. “I’m not from around here.”
His hand left the back of his neck, relieved. “Oh. That’s it? We’re all from somewhere else. I’m from New Jersey. No biggie. So where are you from?”
He didn’t know what he was expecting her to say, but it certainly wasn’t what she said next: “A planet, 36 million light years away, with a name that sounds to humans like ‘Vingset’.” The surprise made him laugh, and continue to laugh for a minute, until…
“Why are you laughing, Henry?”
He stopped short. She had said it with a grin on her face, but a sincere kind of grin, like she really wanted to know what sounded so preposterous about her telling him, basically, that she was an alien.
“I… I mean… you’re kidding, right?”
“We don’t get visitors here, Henry Blake. You shouldn’t be here. You’re a fluke. A freak accident. One in a million. But here you are, and there is something… I trust you. The first thing you did was offer to help, and I can tell you are a gentle man.” She reached out and put her hand on his knee. It was firm and soft at the same time. He didn’t know whether to jerk it away, or welcome the touch, so he just sat motionless, waiting. She was serious.
“Henry, I’m going to tell you everything.”
And boy, did she. She told him about their crash landing in Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947. About how their ship was damaged, requiring repairs that human technology couldn’t accomplish, parts that simply didn’t exist, and fuel: lithium. So they offered to help the U.S. government accelerate human understanding of lithium and its uses, in exchange for a place to repair and fuel their vehicle. So they allotted Mae and sixteen others a forty-acre patch of nowhere, Silver Peak, under the condition they would be monitored 24/7 and have no visitors. Period. She and her team wanted desperately to interact with humans, but it was forbidden. Absolutely forbidden. He was their very first visitor.
“In fact, I’m surprised you didn’t get shot out of the sky, Henry. That’s happened before, you know.”
“I was thinking that exact thing on the way down.”
“Electrical storm must’ve shorted out the monitoring fence. My lucky day.”
“Lucky because I got to meet you. A human. A nice one.”
Henry, confused and now a little scared, couldn’t form a coherent thought or make a coherent sound, so he just mumbled, “Mmm-hmm.” He scanned the interior around him, making sure the door wasn’t locked in case flinging himself from her truck at fifty miles per hour became his best option. Then he shook his head, took a deep breath, and formulated the possibilities:
1. She was insane. This was the most likely scenario. This poor young woman had probably been hauled off to microscopic Silver Peak, Nevada, against her wishes, by a husband with a mining contract. And so after her inevitable nervous breakdown, she assumed an alien identity – literally, alien – to disassociate herself from her miserable existence. She needed professional help.
2. She was, in fact, an alien. This was impossible. He wasn’t sure why he even put this on the list of possibilities, probably just to entertain the idea that life could be out there somewhere. Theoretically. He always believed this, ever since he was a little kid, that we weren’t alone, but as he grew that belief morphed into an understanding that life elsewhere, while likely, would be so different, so “alien” to excuse the term, that even in its presence it would be hard to comprehend. It was like that story of the Native American scout, sitting on the shore, looking out onto the ocean, knowing something was there, something was wrong, but unable to perceive the huge European ship on the horizon coming his way, because his brain couldn’t even conceive of such a thing. He looked at her more closely for a moment. She was beautiful, but utterly human, with cracked fingernails, and a bandaid on her elbow, and the most normal-looking nose he’d ever seen. Wouldn’t his human senses, those senses we had underneath our surface senses, reveal something… different? A stilted voice or awkward choice of words? Micro-eye-movements that seemed just a bit off? Fingers a little too long? No. She was definitely human.
3. She was pulling his leg. Yes, he decided in that next moment, number three it was: this was just a joke. A way to have some fun with the periodic tourists drawn to Area 51 looking for UFOs or whatever they looked for, straying off from the more popular tourist traps into poor Silver Peak for proof of something “out there.” Yes, he grinned now, the truth dawning on him that this smart, funny woman really had him going for a minute. Boy, he prided himself on not being gullible, but just for a second… anyway, he decided to play along.
“Well, Miss Mae, short for something much longer, from Vingset. Where are you taking me anyway? To your leader?”
She smiled a knowing smile, probably having heard this exact line many times from eager strangers. “Nah. The leaders are off at the lithium mine until whenever. Storm’s got you grounded through the night at least, and we’ll have to fix your short when it clears, so you’ll stay at my place in the meantime. It isn’t much, but it’s home.” She winked at him. “Home away from home, if you get my meaning.”
Wow. She was going all the way with this, wasn’t she? He admired her gumption, her commitment to the role. “Thank you for your hospitality, Mae. So, if I remember my UFO lore correctly, Roswell was back in 1947. That’s… seventy-two years ago. If you don’t mind me saying so, you don’t look a day over thirty.”
“Seventy-one years ago. You’re off by a year. A very scary night. I’ll never forget. As far as aging, well. Listen, did you ever have a pet? A dog? A cat?”
“Yes, a dog. When I was a kid. Chuck.”
“Chuck lived his whole life, birth to old age, and to him, that entire time, you, his master, never seemed to age. Right?”
He shrugged. “I guess.” Another thought occurred to him. “Speaking of Roswell: why? Why’d you come here in the first place? To Earth?”
Her smile faded, just a bit, as she pulled off the road next to a nondescript trailer. “To wait.” She turned off the truck. “Okay, you ready to make a run for it?”
So they bolted to the front door, laughing in the rain, slamming the old rickety screen door behind them as they dripped on the linoleum floor in the kitchen. He realized he was enjoying this, this little cat-and-mouse game, her spinning a fantastic yarn and he trying to unravel it. He was glad to have touched down in Silver Peak.
“Here.” She handed him a towel from the oven handle. “I’ll be back in a second.” Disappearing down the hall, he could hear her calling back, “And if you could turn on the kettle, that’d be great.”
She re-emerged with sweatpants and a Miller Lite t-shirt in her arms, and handed the little bundle to him. “You can change in the bedroom. I’m going to take a quick shower. Then we’ll have some tea.”
Henry began peeling his sopping clothes off, but when he went to close the bedroom door, he realized: there was none. No door to this room, or to the adjacent bathroom. He looked down the hall. No doors at all. Strange.
As his eyes turned back, he noticed something.
There she was, about to step into the shower, her clothes in a pile on the floor. She did not look back, though he half expected her to, like in the movies, when a woman knows, somehow knows, that a man is watching her, taking in her curves, wanting her, and she turns at that last moment and invites him with her eyes. But she didn’t turn, instead cursing, “Too hot!” as she jumped in and threw the plastic curtain across the bar, the little rings screeching.
He found himself repeating her response from before, “Imagine what I could do in an hour,” turning it over and over in his head, turning it into something she clearly didn’t mean, and he almost laughed, at the strange feeling of finally being dry, after an endless half hour or so of feeling like a wet rat, yes finally dry, but wanting to step in to that shower and feel the water soak him all over again.
“How’s your tea?”
“Nice.” He didn’t have the heart to tell her it was awful. “Ah, so Mae, no decorations?”
“You know… Christmas. It’s tomorrow.”
He raised both eyebrows, and she giggled. “Sorry, Henry. Yes, I know what Christmas is. Of course I do. That’s the one with the baby. The Messiah being born. Or Santa Claus. Or both. I could never get it completely straight.”
God, she was strange. But she made him laugh, and he couldn’t remember the last time he felt this good on Christmas Eve. “So Mae, can I ask? What’s with the doors? Or lack of?”
She looked shocked. “Oh my. I didn’t even think, sorry. You know, when you don’t get visitors, and you’re comfortable in your own skin, aren’t doors just an obstacle? Like another thing to push out of your way?”
“Huh. I never thought of it like that. I just assumed, you know. Doors. Hey, are there doors on your spaceship?”
“Can you imagine? Those thin plywood doors, or maybe a screen door, the only thing separating us from the vacuum of space?” And she laughed again, the light laugh of someone truly comfortable in her own skin. Then, “Henry, tell me about your place. Does it have doors?”
He grinned. “Yes. It’s boring. I’m boring.”
“Oh, on the contrary. I think you’re fascinating.”
“Of course you do. According to you, I’m the first visitor you’ve had in seventy-one years.”
“No, really. Look at you. A pilot! You get to travel through space. Just like me! Well, like I used to, anyway. But I will again, someday. And look at that face. You’re thirty-eight, but you look twenty-eight. A fine specimen.”
Woah. That was extra weird, he thought. He didn’t remember telling her his age. But underneath the weird, he was blushing again. He had secretly wondered if she found him attractive. Why did men instinctively do this? Why did we need to know? He’d met this woman an hour ago, and she was married for God’s sake, and still, he wondered.
“Oh, it’s not what you’re thinking, Henry. I meant you’re a fine specimen… to eat.”
For just a moment, a sliver of a hair of a moment, Henry was terrified. Was she some… thing, that would kill and eat him? Forget the alien story – was he about to be the victim of some ghastly cannibal murder? But the warmth in her eyes told him he was the one being crazy now, it was obviously part of the joke, and they laughed together, laughed so hard, in fact, that Henry began to choke on his tea, and Mae had to slap him on the back repeatedly to get his choking fit to stop.
Finally, his breath back, he sighed, “Wow, you’re strong. My back’s going to have bruises tomorrow.”
“I’ve been told.” She was still hovering over him, her hand on his upper back. She sat on the arm of his chair. “It’s time.” She moved her hand to his ear, tracing her finger along the shape, down to his earlobe.
“It’s time?” Again, he thought, what a strange thing to say, ‘it’s time,’ as if he didn’t have a choice of what might happen between them. Of course he had a choice. But… did he? From the moment he met her, he had the odd feeling she not only revealed him, but she had some kind of sway over him. Again his heart began racing, but this time not from fear, though there was some fear in there too, absolutely, but no, this time it was desire, a desire for the unknown, for the warmth of the unknown. “But… your husband… I don’t… Listen, I’m not that guy.”
She chuckled, then apologized. “Sorry. Another thing I should’ve thought of. No, I’m not married in the way you think I am. Where I come from relationships are quite, ah, open, yes, that’s the word you’d use. Honestly. I’m telling you the truth. If Ben were to walk in right now, he’d probably insist on joining us. Consider yourself lucky.”
They both laughed at that, and that calmed him, and he took her hand in his. “Are you sure?”
She lifted him to her, standing, and looked into his eyes. “The team is gone to the mine for weeks at a time. It’s a lonely life. We understand each other. Truly.” And then she reached across the small distance between them, touching his lips with hers. She had the softest lips he’d ever kissed. A surge of something, like electricity, shot through Henry’s body. So warm, this unknown woman. He couldn’t resist. He pulled back, just a little. “One last thing. I know your secret. You’re not an alien.” He smiled, knowing how human she really was, and she smiled back at him, and their lips touched again, and soon she was pulling him into the doorless bedroom.
The sun peeked through the blinds, painting stripes of light on the bedroom wall. Henry grinned, feeling maybe the most satisfied he’d ever been – he’d not only survived a short field landing in an electrical storm, and lived to see the next sunny day, but this morning he knew he’d be in the air, off to live beyond his thirty-eight years. And maybe he hadn’t fallen in love, but love had fallen on him, in a big way, all at once, in the form of a strange but beautiful woman from an invisible town just outside Area 51.
He opened his eyes, and there, on the bed next to him, a small box, in Christmas wrap. It even had a little bow. He picked it up and ambled into the kitchen, to find Mae relaxing, sipping some of her god-awful tea.
He held out the box. “Mae, you shouldn’t have.”
“Open it, and you’ll see, I most definitely should have.”
He pulled at the ribbon, slid off the top, and grinned. “What do you get the man who has an airplane that doesn’t work?” And he lifted out the fuse. “How do you know this’ll work?”
“Spaceships, Henry. I repair spaceships.”
She emerged from under the plane, dusting herself off. “Thank you, Henry.”
“Thank me? You’re the one who just fixed my plane. And put me up for the night. And… you know.”
At this, she just curled her lips up a bit, reached up and kissed him, for a long while, then patted his bottom and backed up, watching him climb into the Cherokee’s cabin.
The plane took off, with Henry smiling inside, and she watched until it was a tiny dot in the blue, and then it was gone.
“Goodbye, Henry Blake.”
Mae walked away, a little skip in her step, a tune on her tongue, the sunny day making everything a little brighter than she could ever remember.
As she reached her pickup, she noticed Ben, leaned up against the driver’s door. He nodded to her and smiled. Then he pointed up to the sky.
“Who was that?”
“A human.” As if that explained everything. He raised an eyebrow. “Do I want to know all the details?”
“I’ll skip to the good part.”
Ben leapt up and hugged her, hugged her so hard she thought she’d burst, and they cried for joy in each other’s arms. Seventy-one years. They had been waiting Seventy-one years for this moment.
“Let’s fuel up the ship and get the others. We can finally go home.”
I hope you enjoyed that short story. A special shout-out and thanks to a friend from way back in high school, Darren O’Neil, who’s a pilot with United, he helped me get some of the technical emergency landing part of the story into shape. Thank you, Darren.
And thanks you again for tuning in to Listen To The Signal. I’m Rob Dircks, author of the science fiction novels Where the Hell is Tesla?, Don’t Touch the Blue Stuff!, The Wrong Unit, and my latest release, an Audible Original titled You’re Going to Mars! You can find my books on Audible and Amazon, and find out more and get in touch here on the contact page or at RobDircks.com.
Copyright ©2018 Rob Dircks