Chapter 1 - Foreign Exchange
"Bank! A quarter; darn, it’s tails though." A blue-eyed, walnut haired, middle-schooler held up his acquisition.
"Chase, get up off the floor. How will we find Fletcher in this crowd if you don't hold up the sign?" Natalie already felt annoyed by the entire situation. Why had her parents decided that it would be a good idea to host a foreign exchange student? Why couldn’t they have just let her enjoy the school year without an annoyance more than her younger brother. And why did they make her meet him at the airport? "Ugh."
"I am holding up the sign." Chase clumsily fumbled with his tablet computer that in large letters read, "Fletcher Jain," as he stuffed the quarter into his pocket.
Natalie focused on the travelers arriving from the airport’s down escalators. "Maybe that's him."
A teen boy reached ground level, and a middle-aged woman in yoga pants and man in a golf shirt hugged him.
"Nah, that kid’s American. British people don't hug like that. They actually have dignity."
"There, in the sunglasses." Natalie pointed to another teenager at the top, descending.
The black haired teen glanced in Natalie and Chase’s direction but then looked away to text on his phone. The preoccupied youth carried a rugged canvas duffle to one side and shouldered a worn leather courier bag on the other. He wore a t-shirt and carried a green army surplus style jacket. The jacket displayed a front pocket patch of the national flag of the United Kingdom.
"He resembles the social pics, but I don't think it's our guy either. He's carrying one of those European purses."
"England is in Europe. And, it’s a man-pack." Natalie felt her pulse quicken. Could this be him? The boy seemed good-looking in a disheveled sort of way.
"Tomayto, tomahto . . . ; his shirt's in German, '@Gort #KlaatuBaradaNikto.'"
"Chase, your brain’s a 404 error code; did you know that? Wait here. I’ll check if it’s him."
Natalie pushed through the crowded baggage claim area, working her way around luggage piles, baggage carts, and travelers. She suddenly felt nervous and realized that she didn’t know what to say. Her ears felt hot and her hands sweaty.
As Natalie closed within a few yards of the teenager, a blond woman in aviator sunglasses and fedora approached him ahead of her. Natalie noticed an Air Force insignia on the woman’s bag.
The lady handed a water-stained manila envelope to the black haired teenager, who then shoved the envelope into his courier bag and gave the lady a subtle nod. The exchange seemed clandestine, like a spy delivering top-secret documents.
After a quick glance to her left then right, the rather trim blond hustled away and out the glass doors to the roadway.
Natalie still stared in the direction where the woman exited when she heard a British accent, "Would you happen to be Natalie Dailey?" Natalie turned and saw the black haired teenager extending a handshake.
"Yeah. Hi. Uh . . . I'm uh . . . Nat Dailey."
"I saw you and your brother over there with the sign." He smiled and smoothed back his hair.
"Right, you must be Fletcher." Maybe hosting an exchange student wasn’t going to be such as bad thing after all, she thought.
"Yes. But, I usually go by Fletch . . . or, um, . . . or Fang." He watched for Natalie's reaction then smirked. "Not really; no one calls me Fang, but that would be more dashing; wouldn't it?"
"Funny, nice to meet you, Fletch." Natalie gestured in the direction where the lady exited. "Who was that?"
Fletcher's eyes moved to his right for a millisecond; he then smiled, oddly, with a grin, and shrugged. "I don't know really. She thought I was someone else."
"Hmmph. Okay." Natalie wanted to ask about the envelope but didn't want to be rude. Her mind spun, but she managed to speak. "Well, welcome to Chicago and the Midwest. How about I take you over to meet my brother? Then, we can grab your bags. My dad is waiting at the car."
Natalie introduced the foreign exchange student to Chase. After a bit of chit-chat, a familiar bag on the luggage carousel caught Fletcher's attention. "Oh, I see my bags. Do you mind holding my duffel and book bag?"
The Daileys watched Fletch retrieve an oversized bag from the carousel and set it on the ground while waiting for another to make its way around.
Natalie's thoughts swirled about Fletch.
Chase grew impatient. "How many bags could he possibly have? He already shipped a gazillion boxes to the house."
"He's staying a whole year. Ya know--he's got stuff."
"Who was that lady talking to Fletch?"
"He doesn't know."
Chase cocked his head in disbelief. "What?"
"Seriously, Fletch said he didn't know her, but he seemed suspicious about it. Plus, I'm pretty sure I saw her pass him a big envelope, which he slid into his book bag."
"You mean his man-purse that I'm holding right here?"
"Yeah, I think he put the envelope in there."
"Well then--let's take a look-see at this secret envelope." Chase started rummaging through the bag.
"No-no-no-no----no! Chase, no. That's his private stuff." Although just as curious, she didn’t want to blow it in their first meeting.
"C'mon, he'll never know the difference."
"Just give me that." Natalie grabbed the shoulder strap. Chase struggled to maintain control.
"No need to fight over that one." Fletch surprised them from behind. "I'll take it."
Natalie felt like a moron. Humiliated, she shot Chase a dirty look as they headed toward the parking lot with their mysterious foreign exchange student. She hoped that Chase would just drop it, but Chase covertly mouthed the words, "I am getting that envelope."
Chapter 2 - Abducted
Folklorist David Wu typed another journal entry into his laptop, "3:00 a.m. - No extraterrestrial activity observed." He hit the return key then peered back through the window at the dark farmhouse on the adjacent, multi-acre lot.
From his makeshift observatory in the attic of the neighboring colonial, Wu monitored the subjects' home. Being a hundred feet back and perched twenty-seven feet up normally provided an apt view, particularly on a moonlit night. But tonight, the new moon contributed no natural illumination. The only lighting came from the porch lamp over the Washingtons' back stoop.
Wu sipped his rehydrated and now lukewarm coffee. He put the travel mug in the cupholder of his collapsible chair and leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees and his chin on the top of his partially clasped hands. He gazed out with his eye level just inches above the top of the windowsill.
As he waited for the proof of alien visitors that he was promised, Wu fought off the unrelenting sleepiness of 3:00 a.m. He tried combating the drowsiness by tickling the roof of his mouth with his tongue.
He took one more drink of his powdered "crapachino" and then achingly stood up. He was an aging Millennial, by no means fat, but certainly a biscuit or two over his ideal weight.
Overall, Wu possessed a judicious, professorial style. The look started with his graying hair, which he kept combed-back and expertly trimmed with a classic taper cut. His academic stylings continued with a bow tie, button-down shirt, and blue blazer with khaki pants and loafers. However, due to the heat in the attic, the coat and tie were getting a breather on the back of his chair.
He normally didn't need glasses to see; nevertheless, he wore tortoiseshell reading spectacles around his neck, partially for the look. They were the kind that magnetically snapped together at the nose bridge, where geeks put tape, so that he could quickly put them on and off when lecturing.
He turned his arm to check his wristwatch. Tritium-illuminated hands and markers made it visible in the dark. It read two minutes and twenty-seven seconds past three o'clock.
Hsss, te-te-te-te-te, an unfamiliar sound captured his attention. A low, steady, humming noise rose up and down in pitch and changed tone. The high pitched aspects dominated, and the low tones added rapid pulses or micro-ticks. It oscillated in a random yet mechanical fashion. Could it be?
Wu looked out the window -- nothing. He tried to identify the direction of the anomaly by cocking his head from side to side like a dog trying to understand his owner.
Nighttime insects buzzed, squeaked, and chirped. The Washingtons' air-conditioners whirred. Wu ignored the bug sounds and mentally compared the hum of the air-conditioners, vruuuu . . . , with the mystery hsss and te-te-te-te-te. The mystery hum sounded more complex than the noise produced by the AC units.
Wu lowered his ear to his computer to determine if its internal cooling fan was the culprit. That wasn't it. He quickly did the same for the second laptop which captured video from the digital camera pointed out the window at the Washingtons' house.
The professor took another look at the neighbors' lot. Seeing nothing, he pulled his chair into position, sat, and readied himself to make a journal entry. "3:03 a.m. - humming anomaly encountered; source unknown; potential close encounter of the first kind. Will capture audio for future analysis and archival purposes."
While still seated, he reached into a black case that resembled a bowling ball bag. He removed a surveillance microphone by grasping its pistol-grip. The handle supported a yoke that attached to a clear, thirteen-inch diameter, parabolic dish.
Wu unwrapped the microphone cable from around the device and plugged it into his laptop. He clicked record. He then pushed the on-button and aimed the dish out the window. The dynamic waveform graph on the computer came alive.
Before he could aim the mic, ZVOOMP, a pulse thumped. Wu felt it in his bones. The Washingtons' air-conditioners went silent; the hum of his computers and electrical equipment died. The attic fell dark.
The professor's heart beat a little faster. He jiggled the laptop hoping for a sign of life. Finding none, he reached to the back of the machine to check the power cable by gently tugging it and verifying a connection to the power strip and then the wall outlet. Everything was connected but failed to function. He removed his cell phone from his pocket—no power.
Wu raised his left wrist to see his watch dial. The tritium markings glowed; it still read two minutes and twenty-seven seconds after three o'clock. The second hand bounced back and forth between the twenty-seven and twenty-eight-second marks. He shook it and then looked at it again. No change.
Wu turned his attention to the surveilled home. No light came from the porch lamp, and the property remained nearly imperceptible. He reached to the floor below the window and retrieved his binoculars. The hsss and te-te-te-te-te continued. He stood. Wu felt weak-kneed, lightheaded, and an intense squeezing sensation on his temples. He touched his knuckle under his nose; he felt blood. He wiped it away and carried on.
He peered through the binocs. With his eyes dark-adapted, he could make out the curtains of the dark second-floor rooms.
Flash! A blinding light snapped on from the Washingtons' home. Wu shielded and diverted his eyes. Fighting the blind spots, he checked his attic observatory. His instruments remained powerless. He spun back to the Washingtons' and squinted looking down at the porch lamp over their stoop. The bulb remained unlit.
He returned his attention to the illumination emanating from their guest-room. A typical household lightbulb puts out between eight-hundred and seventeen-hundred lumens. This light seemed to be at least a hundred times greater. Wu began feeling queasy and held the table for balance.
His lightheadedness intensified, and his interest in the new mystery light competed with his concern that he might vomit. Wu buckled over from nausea, then knelt to maintain surveillance out the window. Squinting, he saw, without question, that the light emanated from the second-floor guest bedroom. He raised the binoculars for a better look. Wu saw the guest-room windows in magnified detail. Through the translucent linen curtains, Wu saw two silhouettes. The intense backlighting revealed their shapes.
Neither occupant resembled Mr. or Mrs. Washington. Wu remembered Mr. Washington being shorter and much thicker through the middle. Mrs. Washington was inches shorter than her husband and had long, wavy hair. These intruders stood taller and more slender with large heads or helmets.
Wu lowered the binoculars to get perspective. He saw light in the guest-room pass into the master bedroom, possibly shooting under the bedroom door. It created a gentle glow visible through their windows.
He wondered if he was witnessing a home invasion, a hoax, or the alien abduction that his source predicted. If it was a hoax, it was a good one. He desperately wanted to document the incident and collect evidence. His eyes darted around the room at his comprehensive assortment of expensive but currently non-functioning recording equipment.
He helplessly turned his attention back to the farmhouse where he saw the bright light from the guest-room suddenly burst into and engulf the master bedroom. Blinding, purplish, white light now filled both upstairs rooms.
The two visitors glided forward, seemingly passing through the walls of the guest-room into the main bedroom. The visitors moved past the window into an area deeper within the master bedroom where he could no longer see them.
Within a moment, he again saw activity. A person appeared to be on a gurney or somehow floating alongside one of the visitors. Wu followed them with the binoculars. They moved from the master bedroom to the guest-room then faded into the light, disappearing from sight.
He panned back to the master bedroom. This time, another person appeared to be floating on a stretcher alongside the other visitor. Wu rose up to improve his view but accidentally stumbled into the window frame, solidly banging the binoculars against the wood.
The second visitor seemed to notice this disruption and moved to the window. Wu dropped and slid down, hiding below the sill. He pressed his back firmly against that wall. He wondered if they saw him. It's too dark and too far, he thought. His heart pounded.
He looked at the attic door. It was the only way out or in. He scanned for other escape options. The window? He was up too high.
He heard a noise in the house. Beads of sweat covered his forehead. He could feel his pulse racing. He slid to the right, out from under the window, and stood. The professor grabbed his coffee mug to use as a weapon. Although staggering slightly from continuing vertigo, Wu readied himself to take on whatever was coming.
He detected rustling and footsteps in the stairwell outside the attic door. Light projected through the gap between the threshold and bottom of the door. The intensity increased. The beams shown through all of the edges around the closed attic door. The knob began to turn . . .