This story is also available for download from major ebook retailers.
The highway is empty and then it isn’t. The headlights suddenly catch something moving at the next bend. “Deer,” whispers the assistant; the driver lifts his foot from the pedal. Deer would be reasonable, and that’s what they see for the next moment, sharing that small fine thrill. But the shape is wrong, isn’t it? Unlikely as it seems, they realized that a person is walking on the narrow shoulder. A woman walking in the same direction that they’re headed, and judging by the strong gait, she is young. But this is miles from anywhere, and it’s late on a moonless night, and there hasn’t been another vehicle in the last twenty miles.
The driver glances at the assistant.
“Ask,” he says. “See what he wants.”
The assistant is a thin, plain woman named Molly. She has big eyes and a tiny crooked mouth and an elegant, ill-suited nose that isn’t quite three years old. Tattoos of black anchors cover her body, each anchor dipped in blood. Her forearms are sprinkled with burn scars. What might have been a bullet hole forms a crease on her long neck. Everyone who knows Molly has a favorite story about her wild past, but even the true stories fail to capture the magnificent awfulness of her first thirty years. The last four have been better, if only by comparison. Her present employer is a difficult, arrogant man who loves making impossible requests, and while she hasn’t done her present job cheerfully or perfectly, she’s proven a neurotic capacity to try almost anything to make her boss smile.
Molly peers into the back seat. “Sir?”
From behind the driver, a sleepy voice asks, “What?”
“There’s a hitchhiker,” she says. “Going our way.”
“I wouldn’t mention it otherwise.”
Pernell is in his middle forties, though the sharp face and hair implants allow him to pass for thirty-five. He is something of an artist and something of a craftsman, but his genuine talent—what sets him apart—is his capacity to manipulate others. Irresistible charm is his first tool, followed by measured threats, and when it will do the most good, a bulldog’s fury. Pernell doesn’t smoke or drink, and he will punish employees who experiment with drugs. But his virtues reach only so far. He has a fondness for poker, hence this late-night drive back from the nearest casino. And he adores young women. “Pull over,” he decides. “Let’s have a look at her.”
The driver nods. “Middle of the night, strange car. We’ll probably spook the girl.”
“Probably,” Pernell agrees. “You think she’ll run?”
“Think you can catch her, Steve? Before the trees, I mean.”
The driver used to play tight end in the NFL but escaped with both knees intact. Freshly retired, he decided the perfect job would involve working for some rich bastard with more money than common sense. And after a couple false starts, Steve found himself in heaven baby-sitting this goofy asshole. “Oh, I’d catch her,” he says. “Before she even got off the road.”
Pernell leans forward. “You know, that might be worth trying. Just to see if you could do it.”
“Do I hear a wager?”
“It’s your money,” says Steve.
Molly breaks into a wild little laugh, and just as quickly falls silent, hands wrestling in her lap.
Steve lifts his foot. The whine of the tires dissolves into the soft crumbling of lost gravel. On the last of its momentum, the Escalade rolls past the girl. Everyone waits for her to shout out and sprint toward the forest, and they certainly expect her to glance up. But she doesn’t react. Her stride remains quick and efficient but never hurried, never alarmed. Her face is tilted forwards, eyes focused on a rectangle of color and changing light. In her late teens and carelessly pretty, she has a face that seems to gather up the available light, giving her features interesting, appealing angles. The rectangle is some kind of digital player. Nothing else in the world seems to matter. The engine is silent, running on its batteries. The Escalade has stopped rolling. The loudest sound in the world is the purr of the passenger window. Then with a soft caring voice, Molly asks, “Do you need help?”
The girl stops walking but continues studying the player. She says nothing. Maybe she’s deaf, or maybe something else is wrong. Unsure what to do, Molly looks at Pernell, and he rolls one hand impatiently, and Molly sighs and pushes her face out the open window, beginning to repeat the question.
“I don’t need help,” the girl interrupts.
“All right,” says Molly. “I guess. But it’s awfully late, isn’t it? You probably want to be somewhere else, don’t you?”
It’s the hearty voice of a caring sister.
The girl looks up. What is odd but goes unnoticed is how she ignores the face in the open window and the driver too. Looking past Molly, she tells the back seat, “I would accept a short ride, however. If that wouldn’t be too much bother.”
Pernell laughs, smirks. “Come aboard.”
Steve unlocks the doors.
But the girl starts to walk again, slowly, touching the player’s screen. The screen fades. She pulls wireless headphones from both ears and tucks them into a pocket and slides the player into a small pack riding on her belt. Each move is precise. Stopping ahead of the front fender, she turns, everyone expecting her to look at the license plate. But her eyes remain fixed on the windshield. It seems to be intentional, standing in the light like this, showing everyone a fetching and quite pretty and apparently fearless young woman. Jeans and sandals and a tight shirt decorated with embroidered dragons, each dragon flying toward the sky. There is no such thing as caution. The girl’s trust is boundless. At least that’s what Pernell sees when he watches what stands before him, and he smiles, smug and happy, taking this as evidence of a life full of endless good fortune.
* * *
The girl opens the back door and climbs inside. It isn’t surprising or important to find a man sharing the seat. Settling in quickly, she pulls her pack out of the way before fastening her seat belt.
“What were you watching?” Pernell asks.
The girl sits up straight and pats her knees with both hands. Her smile is endless. Even in the near-darkness, her teeth glow. If she didn’t seem so detached it would be easy to believe that she was thrilled with her circumstances. As it is, everyone makes the same guess, that their passenger is full of pot and pills.
Pernell starts to repeat the question.
And she interrupts, naming the movie. She stares at the front seat, describing the scene where she froze the player, and then she explains what she thinks of the work so far. “I don’t like it. It’s silly. A cartoon with live actors and a contrived story, and people must be very bored to pay money to enjoy it, and how much business has it done?”
“Four hundred million,” Pernell says.
“Silly,” she repeats.
That seems to kill the conversation.
But Molly hates silence. She turns, angrily asking, “Do you know who just saved you from walking?”
Still smiling, the girl finally glances at Pernell. And to be helpful, he turns on the overhead reading light, acting as if he’s posing for a publicity shot, smiling in that all-occasion way.
“You’re up in Fairview,” the hitchhiker remarks. “You’re making that movie.”
Pernell nods and turns off his light, and searching for a safe disarming topic, he asks, “So what movies do you like?”
Her response is a quiet, slicing laugh.
He isn’t certain what to make of that response, but as soon as he starts to repeat the question, she interrupts.
“I don’t like any movies.”
Everybody squirms. But it’s Steve who talks for the rest of them, asking, “Why the hell not?”
“Movies are piles,” she replies instantly, with a happy defiant voice. “Piles of images and piles of sound stacked up by too many hands, and they’re usually quite unstable and too often stupid, and when you get down to it, they can be awfully dangerous too.”
A critic has fallen into their midst. Seeing her duty, Molly asks, “What do you mean, dangerous?”
“Movies shape society,” the girl says. “But they’re clumsy and self-gratifying and far too easy with their lessons. There’s little reality inside them, and never any science. Commercial films are built to convince everybody’s twelve-year-old self that no problem is complex, every solution bringing a bullet or a timely kick to the groin.”
“My dear,” says Pernell. “How old are you?”
“I’m not twelve,” she says.
Steve grunts and says, “Thirteen, maybe.”
Molly laughs, but not Pernell. He invests the next several moments imagining the passenger naked, her fine strong body stretched across his leather seat. Youth has always entertained him. Girls like this, barely above childhood, love to make important noise. Throwing a few abrasive complaints at the world helps their mood. But that’s all this is. Noise. He refuses to be insulted. He lets her hear a big solid laugh, unconcerned by it all. During her brief, obscure life, this girl has accomplished nothing. Both of them know this, and there’s no reason to be offended.
Molly feels insulted. Looking over the headrest, she asks, “Do you know anything about the movie we’re making?”
“Remaking,” the girl says.
Pernell chuckles. “Oh, and you don’t approve of remakes, I suppose.”
“I don’t approve or disapprove,” the girl says cryptically. “But life evolves.”
“What’s that mean?” Molly asks.
“Future generations often improve on their ancestors. It happens with species and with art. Not that improvement is inevitable, of course. Nothing can be inevitable.”
Their passenger isn’t the only one who can be brash. Pernell says, “Well, I’ll promise you this. My movie will be the best version ever.”
The girl looks forward again. “That shouldn’t be too difficult.”
Molly shivers. “The original movie’s wonderful. It’s a classic.”
“Hardly,” the girl says.
Loyalty is the best kind of strength, and Molly’s strength extends far beyond one difficult boss. Movies were the one reliable joy in an otherwise miserable childhood. She grew up watching every kind of film and worshipping those pretty faces, and she still utterly adores the medium. Classic movies have been better companions than any man and most women, and it infuriates her to think that somebody so young and smug can treat the loves of her life with this dismissive scorn. “What do you mean? Everyone knows it’s a great film.”
“What I mean.” The girl doesn’t hesitate. She pauses. Allowing a few moments of silence, she builds the space for a careful explanation. “The original film was directed with some skill. I will admit that much. And several of the actors didn’t hurt themselves too badly. And if the only point of the story was to play with the paranoia of the day, then the product was a passable success.”
Pernell tries another laugh. “So what did they do wrong?”
The girl looks at him. “The aliens are wrong.”
“Really,” he says.
“What are you talking about?” Molly presses.
“Invaders from space would never, ever act like that.”
Steve glances over his shoulder. “Kid,” he says. “Don’t take this the wrong way, kid. But you are one certified, genuine fucking idiot.“
Nothing about the girl shows tension. Not her posture or voice. She shrugs and says, “If there were body snatchers.” Another pause. “If they were real, then they would be nothing like they are in the movies. Nature does not and never will work that way.”
Amusing this girl is just too much work. Pernell sighs and says, “Young lady. What do you know about body snatchers?”
Another framing silence descends.
Then the girl says, “I know that aliens are real. And I know that they’re not only real but extraordinarily common, and if you know what to look for, you’d realize that new aliens are arriving here every day.”
* * *
Tires and the road hum smoothly. Nobody speaks. Three people summon all they know about mental illness and delusional states, every nugget of fact contaminated with slasher movies and sentimental dramas. Then each one of them takes a simple precaution to mollify the fear. Molly sits sideways, her back pressed against her locked door. Steve drops his right hand near the pepper spray kept for unruly fans and disgruntled screenwriters. And Pernell, feeling most vulnerable, slips a Waterman pen from his shirt pocket, exposing the hard tip, mentally practicing how he will stab any hand that comes near him.
“Maybe I’m stupid,” Molly allows. “Maybe you should explain to stupid me how nature really works.”
With an agreeable, almost cheery tone, the girl says, “I can try.”
“Educate all of us,” Pernell teases.
“Well,” the girl begins. “First of all, it isn’t possible to build a new body, a body that matches a human being exactly, and do that magic in a few hours or days, much less in just a few minutes. Real bodies aren’t plastic dolls or digital images. Flesh demands delicate, exacting work. Hundreds of trillions of proteins have to be fabricated and aligned just so, creating essential enzymes and structural tissues. Skeletons are magnificent puzzles, and they don’t like being slapped together in the wrong order. Organs have to be built and arranged in the proper sequence, and everything has to work with the first heartbeat. Nature understands all of this. It takes twenty years to build an adult human. If organic systems could do the magic in one day, don’t you think they would? Growth is power. Power is relentless. On a world with that kind of fecundity, every organism would have to race through its life cycle just to keep up.”
Pernell waves his free hand. “Who knew? Thank you.”
Molly sighs and Steve shakes his head, laughing.
“Human minds are complicated,” the girl continues. “Even a stupid man’s brain is enormous and sophisticated and ever-changing. The skull holds as many neurons as there are stars in this galaxy, and every neuron has to be integrated with its neighbors, and all of them have to be trained, and the thermodynamic problems alone make it impossible to build a working mind out of fat and blood and nothingness.”
Pernell shifts his weight. With a quiet, measured voice, he says, “Except we aren’t talking about reality. Are we, dear? Our topic is the movies. And as you pointed out, thank you, movies are stories told with piles of pictures and sounds. They are works of fiction. By its very nature, fiction is under no obligation to obey every rule in the real world.”
Molly enjoys her boss’s expert dismissal. She laughs and claps her hands once, saying, “Amen.”
The hitchhiker remains unflustered. “There’s another insolvable problem,” she continues. “In a hundred different films, the earth has been invaded. The inspiration for this scenario comes from human war, but the truth is that nobody will attack this world with starships. Traveling though space isn’t like floating on the sea. The galaxy is enormous. Stars are far apart. And there aren’t any hyperspace tricks to jump from there to here. The best rocket fuel will always be antimatter, but its production would bankrupt any world foolish enough to try to build some stellar armada.”
Pernell realizes that the Escalade is slowing down. “What are you doing?”
“We aren’t a bus,” Steve says. “I’m dropping her off.”
“No, you’re not,” Pernell tells him.
But Steve holds to his decision. The girl is crazy and maybe dangerous, and his first job is to keep this spoiled, foolish man safe. The studio hired him for that reason. He has the authority and good reasons to make the decision that he’s making. And that’s why he pushes on the brakes, right up until Molly touches his forearm.
“You heard him. Let the girl talk, or you’re walking too.”
They accelerate, incrementally.
Pernell holds his pen like a knife, but his shoulders relax. “Maybe you’re right, young lady. Maybe the science stinks. But directors aren’t scientists. I know I’m no expert in space travel or biology.”
“Biology,” the girl repeats enthusiastically. “You know, large portions of the galaxy are full of life. The earth is one example among billions. And evolution isn’t just a local custom. Natural selection is a universal process, working on every species and every living world. Selection forces help pick winners, and worlds that make reasonable choices, no matter how boring, are the same worlds that eventually leap across the cosmos to invade their neighbors.”
“But you just said,” Molly complains. “Invasions can’t happen.’”
“The clichéd invasion can’t. Exactly.”
Molly takes a deep breath and another and says, “But. In the first snatcher movie, seeds drift down from outer space. Not spaceships.”
“Spores are very tiny seeds,” the girl mentions.
“I guess so.”
“Tough spores released into the vacuum will ride on the pressure of starlight, drifting like dust. Most of them won’t touch ground again. But after a few million years, you’re right, a few spores might settle on another world, and some of those spores could germinate. Grow like mushrooms, eating organic matter. Or turn into plants and eat sunlight.” A loud bright and enthusiastic laugh erupts. She pats her legs and says, “Well now, you’re absolutely right. That is the most reasonable plan of attack. It’s so reasonable, in fact, it’s inevitable.”
Molly smiles warily, unsure why she suddenly cares so much about this painfully uninteresting subject.
The girl leans between the front seats, her face low, features illuminated by the dash. She has a lovely focused and undeniably smart expression. She’s insane, obviously so, but it’s a fascinating, fetching affliction, and Pernell can’t help but smile along with her, anticipating whatever grand weirdness will come out of her next.
* * *
“Imagine,” the girl says. Then she says the word once more, with a warm delighted voice. “Imagine.”
No one else speaks.
“Ten thousand alien spores touch the earth’s surface every day. Every day, microscopic capsules drift down from the sky, coming to rest wherever wind and water place them. Why would anyone notice that quiet onslaught? One day’s sporefall couldn’t dirty a single raindrop. Of course most of the spores are nonviable, sterilized by radiation, killed by deep time. Even the healthy invaders probably won’t find their way to a perfect nourishing environment. Ten thousand spores aren’t enough, obviously. Ten million aren’t enough, probably. But if just one spore in ten billion were successful, we should see the results. Where are the colonies of microbes with very peculiar genetics? Believe me, scientists have looked. Where are the strange purple bushes standing in everyone’s front yard? And why isn’t the ocean floor carpeted with a ropy glowing fungus that arrived thirty years ago, descended from a seed riding Halley’s tail?”
The girl suddenly reaches between the seats, touching Steve’s bare arm.
He jumps, curses.
“Relax,” she says.
“I am,” he lies.
“What’s your name?”
He hesitates and then for some reason decides to lie. “Bill. I’m Bill.”
“Well, Bill. I want to slip my finger deep inside your ear.”
He looks back and says, “No. You don’t want to.”
Yet she laughs and tries, and with an easy stark violence, he slaps the hand before it can touch his head.
“Interesting,” she says.
“No, it isn’t,” he says.
“This is something you don’t know. How could you? But is an illustration of why there are no successful invasions. Life on earth has a similar reaction to unwelcome touches.” She sits back. Pauses. “Nothing could be more reasonable. Life in the galaxy was ancient before there even was an earth. Millions of worlds were thick with organic goo, not sentient but durable and persistent. Comet impacts and the like sent clouds of totipotent spores across the cosmos. As soon as life became possible here, it was here. It was thriving. Yet the evidence shows only one founding family, one set of descendants. That’s a puzzle and a clue. The biosphere around us has a deep driving need to remain pure. Aliens are invaders. No matter how fertile the invading spore, it will be identified and defeated. Really, there isn’t any other explanation for what you don’t see every day. In a universe awash with life, the only way one small world can remain pure is to fight off every trespasser.”
Pernell shifts his weight and sighs. “You certainly know a lot about this subject. A science student, are you?”
The girl smiles and says nothing.
“Or maybe you’re something else,” he allows. “Since you seem to know everything about this business, it stands to reason: You must be some kind of alien monster.”
Molly gasps and throws one hand over her mouth.
The girl calmly stares at Pernell, the smile unchanged. “Now why would you believe such a thing?”
“You said so yourself. Life is everywhere. Aliens must be everywhere. You know things that our scientists probably don’t understand, and since by your own admission you agree that extraterrestrials are trying to make a beachhead here . . .”
He lets his voice trail away.
Molly wraps her arms around her chest, wishing that the boss would stop teasing the crazy girl.
But Pernell loves late-night bull sessions. Always has. “Tell me if I’m right. You seem to be claiming that we don’t have anything to worry about when it comes to invasions. Because our enemies arrive small, and they can’t just whip up big new bodies out of pods, and the earth can kill the little bastards easily enough.”
The girl says, “To a degree, yes. You’re right.”
“Just to a degree?”
Molly puts her face between the seats. “You know, sir. Tomorrow’s a big day. I know you don’t want to hear this, but maybe—”
“Shut up,” he says pleasantly.
“I’m talking to this girl,” he says with a gracious, unconcerned voice. Then to his guest, he asks, “So now, what’s wrong with my thinking?”
“The word ‘alien.’ It trips you up, if you aren’t careful.”
She nods, the smile narrowing slightly. “Life on earth came from somewhere else. Assume that’s true. Well, today that original mother world might be on the other side of the galaxy, or she died for some good natural reason. But her offspring are everywhere. In this arm of the galaxy, maybe ten thousand living worlds are infested with this one distinct strain of life, and each one of those worlds protects its independence, and each has evolved complexity and new talents. One or two or ten resident species might be technologically advanced. Those creatures are actively launching spores out into the cold and dark. But maybe these are larger, more sophisticated versions of the early spores. No, they can’t be as swift as the bacteria-sized vanguards. The odds of finding their way to this earth are extraordinarily low. But if one should ever land here, it will be blessed with the same biochemistry as the locals, the same key signatures. Earth life won’t rebel against it, and with a second measure of luck, the beast might do rather well.”
“So they’re not true aliens,” says Pernell. “That’s your point.”
“These new spores can be different, yes. They won’t sprout into freestanding new species. They’re sleek, slippery entities that latch onto whatever fertile organism happens to be nearest, giving its host a set of radical instructions. With genes and memes and instructive elements more powerful than either.”
She makes a soft sighing noise, wrapping her arms around her waist. “For a long time, life on Earth was simple. Microbes at sea and oxygen building up in the atmosphere, and then the oxygen diminished, and then it built again and fell again. But very little changed, and nothing lived on the land. The only multicellular life was flat and rudimentary. Then all at once, on the first day of what’s called the Cambrian Period, there was diversity. Every phylum that exists today exploded into existence. You see, a new set of instructions had arrived, the revolution was unleashed, and that’s only the largest revolution in a string of upheavals that can’t be more obvious, once you know what to look for in the geologic record.”
With conviction and considerable pleasure, Molly looks into the back seat, saying, “Oh, you are so crazy.”
“Now, now,” Pernell says. “Be nice.”
“Why?” Molly asks. “There’s no reason to tolerate . . . to patronize . . . somebody that probably walked away from a mental hospital.”
Pernell drops his hand on Molly’s shoulder.
She pulls back, glaring at him.
Then the insane girl takes hold of Pernell’s arm, one finger and the matching thumb curling around his elbow, and she moves his arm back into his lap. He tries to pull free and can’t. Startled, he stabs with the pen hand, but the girl grabs his fist in the dark, using her other hand, and she squeezes until the weapon drops between them.
Molly turns to Steve, unaware of what just happened. “Pull over here. Now. This has gone far enough.”
“Finally, somebody’s thinking,” says Steve, putting them on the narrow graveled shoulder.
The Escalade tilts, tires biting into the soft, unstable earth.
They stop, and the girl laughs. She laughs and tells them, “Of course you know what I am. What else could I be?”
Silence feels best. No one wants to talk to the creature. No one wants to risk prolonging this conversation. But Pernell’s arm and hand are aching, and his skin feels sunburned, and worst of all, he can’t just let this business drop. So he finally says, “No, I don’t know. What exactly are you?”
“Oh, darling,” the girl says, breaking into wild laughter. “You’re riding alone with the next invasion, of course.”
* * *
Five weeks and five hours have passed. The sun is barely up when the Escalade parks behind the motel, out of sight of the Interstate. Steve emerges, stretching his back and setting the car alarm before walking slowly up to the second story, to 209, knocking on the metal door before using the card key. The room is dark and silent. The bed is empty. He sits on the end of the bed and rubs his face and then lays back, weight on his elbows and the sheets smelling of her. He sniffs and smiles, and the toilet flushes, and he lies down just before she comes out of the bathroom.
“I’m here,” he says.
“I heard you,” she says.
He turns and looks at a narrow little body wearing nothing but panties and a dozen bloody anchors. She sits beside him and puts a fond hand on his chest, asking, “How was it?”
“In a minute,” he says.
She sits and waits, patience carrying her through the next couple minutes of silence.
Steve names the town where they shot all night.
“I remember the schedule,” she says.
He wants to say something, but this won’t be easy. The strongest light is the vertical slash of reflected dawn entering between the blinds. The room is cheap but neat. She washed her Subway uniform yesterday after work, and it hangs where it can dry without wrinkling. He looks at it and then at her face, particularly at the big eyes, saying, “Do you know where that is?”
He points. He gives the miles between Fairview and there. He expects her to guess the rest of it for herself, but she seems puzzled and not in any real hurry to understand whatever he is trying to tell her.
Steve shakes his head, cursing softly.
Molly lays her hand on his hand, waiting.
“When we kicked her out . . . remember what she told us. . . ?”
“Every word,” she says.
“‘Genes and memes and instructive elements more powerful than either,’” he repeats.
“What’s the matter, darling?”
The exasperation is honest, raw. “If I’m being transformed, I should at least feel like I’m getting smarter. Not dumber.”
“You’re not dumb,” she says, meaning it.
“I’m getting confused,” he says. “Flustered, you know? In the pros, I might have to make five big decisions running one pattern, at full speed, and it was easy. Now nothing is easy. Nothing’s simple. Everything I do, my head slows down and I find myself thinking too much and getting nervous.”
“Did something go wrong?”
“Last night. At the shoot.”
“No, not really. It all went pretty much as expected.” He considers. “You mean like a troubled fan or something.”
“No kook with a gun, no.”
Steve puts the back of his hand over his mouth, sucking at the salty skin. Sometimes he thinks that his flesh tastes wrong, or his tongue isn’t experiencing the universe in the same way. A couple days ago, with time to kill, he wrote out a list of changes, both obvious and subtle, and the last item was the observation that he was making a list. He never believed in them before, ever.
“How’s she doing?” Molly asks.
He doesn’t need to ask who she means. Better than anyone else in the world, he knows Molly. “The girl screwed up a few times last night. One big blunder cost money.”
“What did he do?”
Pernell, she means. “Yeah, that was different,” Steve admits. “The crew, the cast . . . everybody was waiting for the fireworks. But all he did was take her aside and talk hard to her for a couple seconds.”
She nods, imagining the scene.
“He still made her cry,” says Steve.
“Poor girl,” Molly says. Then she shrugs, once again saying, “The best day of my life was when I quit.”
“You still think about walking away?”
She watches him. And after a minute, she asks again, “What happened?”
“That town,” he begins.
“What about it?”
“Pernell wanted their old bell tower. One scene, but it’s a big one. They had the extras ready. All local people, particularly the prettier ones.”
“Wait,” she says.
She says, “Shit,” and laughs. “Was she?”
Molly falls silent. Then after a minute, she says, “We were close to that bell tower. Weren’t we?”
“Maybe four miles away. You can get to that town on a county road. Her house is another mile along, about.”
He doesn’t talk.
“So,” she says. “The alien wasn’t some group hallucination.”
“And you saw her?”
“I did, and so did Pernell. Right away.”
“What did he do?”
Steve begins to reply, but then hesitates. “Ask me what I did. Then I’ll get to him.”
“Did you talk to her?”
“But you saw her.”
“We were ten feet apart, and yes. I did.”
She nods, waits.
“I asked people about her. Her name, her story.”
“Seventeen years old. Born to a single mom who isn’t thirty-five yet. She’s lived her whole life in that county. And everybody likes her. I talked to this one kid, a high school jock who says he remembers me—I don’t know, maybe he was lying—anyway, he said she’s this wonderful girl and every guy loves her and she doesn’t date and she refuses to go to church, and she’s only an average student but every teacher loves her too.”
“Is she nuts?” Molly asks.
Then she rephrases the question, adding, “I know she isn’t. But does she talk to them the same that she did with us?”
He thinks a moment and says, “Not that I can tell, no.”
Molly nods and holds his hand with both of hers.
“But she wanders,” he continues. “One old guy told me that the girl goes out at night, walking the area roads. She hitches rides from strangers, and the weirdest thing was that my witness didn’t seem to care or be alarmed at all. ‘She likes to meet strangers and chat,’ he said, as if nothing in the world was more ordinary.”
“Are those people changed?” she asks.
“I couldn’t tell. Honestly.” He retrieves his hand and rubs his eyes hard, needing a moment before admitting, “I don’t think it happens fast. What she told us about how the brain is so complicated and delicate . . . I think she was warning us that real changes, the ones that count for something, take years and a lot of hard, invisible work.”
“Probably so,” she agrees.
He breathes, watching the ceiling.
“I didn’t talk to her. But Pernell did.”
“I was watching both of them, and believe me, he got scared when he saw her. Nervous, guilty scared. He looked sick and miserable, but he made himself walk over to her. I didn’t. I didn’t have the guts. She was standing with friends, school kids crowding in close to her, everybody just trying to be near her. And there he was, the world famous director, nervous enough to shake, chatting up this girl from no place. This creature from the stars. Everybody else was enjoying that show. I don’t know what was said, but she had some little speech that she gave, and suddenly everybody was laughing. Hard. It was the kind of laughter where you feel excluded, not being part of it yourself.”
“The scene got shot. Late, because of that foul up earlier. I kept asking the town about the girl, and they told me more than I can remember—God, I wish she’d given me a better brain—and then on the way back to Fairview, the light came on in back. Pernell started making calls. The middle of the night in California, and he wakes people up to tell them to fly out here and meet him this afternoon. He’s got big news.”
Molly closes her eyes.
“I asked him what that was about. When he was done calling.”
“And he actually told you?”
“He’s not the same man. It’s hard to name what’s different. It’s like two leaves from the same tree. You can tell them apart only when you compare them in your hand. But he is easier to get along with. Mostly. And some of those bad old habits are missing.”
She opens her eyes. “Good.”
Steve waits a moment before saying, “He’s having the movie rewritten.”
“But the shooting’s nearly done,” she says.
“I made the same point. And you know what he told me? ‘Yeah, but the whole thing is a giant miserable turd. Nobody likes it, and if it doesn’t get better, there’s talk about this monster going straight to DVD.’ ”
“Wait,” says Molly. “He said that?”
“But the man has a plan. He told me that he’s going to pump in his own money, pay for every new scene and make the investors sleep nights again. Now that he’s finally figured out what’s wrong with the story.”
“With the snatcher film?”
“With all the snatcher films,” he says.
Molly spends a moment staring at the room’s television. Even this shabby motel offers HBO, but it has been two weeks since she last watched even a few minutes of a movie.
“‘My aliens are going to be charming, and they’re going to be funny,’” says Steve, quoting the director word for word. “‘Which is how they would be, of course. I mean, if you went to all the trouble of coming here from some other star, and if you could cook up a new body as easily as they can . . . you wouldn’t want to make a mess of your invasion by acting like a pack of insufferable pricks. No. You’d make nice instead. Know what you’d do? Snatch only the assholes of the world. Leave the good people like you and me walking around. Then everybody is on your side, and the whole world falls into your lap. And how wonderful-fucking-scary is that going to be?’”