Pete Bratcher walked out of his barn as I clattered up in my pickup truck. Stella, or Kathleen or Whoever Her Name Was, stepped out behind him. It didn’t feel reassuring that both were cradling rifles. They seemed to relax when it became clear no one was in the truck with me and no one was following me. What, did they think I’d bring the law with me, or that the law would insist on coming along?
Maybe it was me putting airs on Pete now that I had some idea he was more than he seemed, but I felt like there was a sharpness and an edge to the way he carried himself this morning, as opposed to good old rumpled and relaxed Peter who was everybody’s pal.
The girl – why after the last 30-40 years is it still OK to call a young woman a girl? – wore her ever-present baseball cap with the ponytail through the back and the thin line of a mouth. The T-shirt and jeans showed how trim she was, as always, which I admit would be distracting if not for her firm “can’t touch this” attitude and the fact that I was too upset to notice that sort of thing just then.
“Good to see you, Hank,” Pete said, which was scary in itself. Usually Pete was full of beans and guffaws and metaphors, so him just standing there all serious and “good to see you” was far enough off his game that it knocked me even further off mine, but not so much that I forgot that crack Stella had said to him about “We saw one, Pete.”
I got straight to the point with not even a good-to-see-you-too.
“What the hell is going on, Pete?” Even I was surprised at the fury I managed to squeeze into seven quiet words.
“It’s complicated, or maybe it isn’t,” Stella started to say.
“Not you!” I barked, pointing at her to shush her up, and then pointing at Pete. “Him! Who, are all this time and all we’ve been through together, who the hell are you, Pete? What the hell is happening, and why the hell is my best friend dead?”
A little bit of what I always thought was the real Pete shone in his friendly, sad eyes.
“It’s what she said, Hank. It’s complicated, or maybe it isn’t,” Pete said like a soft-hearted grandpa or maybe a kindly uncle. “I’m sorry I kept you out of this for so long.”
“How long is that, exactly?” I said.
He sighed and looked over my shoulder toward a place that felt very, very far away.
“Oh, Hank,” he said. “How old are you again?”
“My whole life you’ve been keeping something from me? You kidding?” I said. “I’m 37 years old. You telling me you’ve been keeping me in the dark all that time? My whole life.”
He met my eyes again.
And I screamed in rage. It wasn’t words, just the scream.
“What the hell is going on?” I said for the third time when I calmed down slightly. “What’s this all about?”
“Probably more than you can imagine.”
“I don’t know, I got a good imagination,” I said. “Try me, Pete. Why is Buzz dead? What trap did you send us into this morning? Who was the four-armed guy who blew a hole into Buzz and patched him up again?”
“Patched him up? What do you mean?” Stella asked.
“I mean his body looks like nothing happened except for the part about being dead.”
She looked at Pete. “Can they do that?”
“Damn it, can WHO do that?”
“Those are questions I can’t answer yet, Hank,” Pete said. “I –”
“Before, you said you were going to tell me everything!”
“Yep, and I’m gonna. But I can’t answer questions I don’t know the answers to. I’m damn good, but not that good.”
I took a deep breath.
“Yeah. OK. So start at the beginning.”
At last, Pete guffawed. That made me feel better, or at least less scared.
“The beginning? The beginning was a really long time ago, Hank. Not only before you were born, but before even I was born. No, wait, when was I born?” He thought long enough to calculate. “Yep, couple of years before I was born.”
“I dunno,” Pete said. He looked at Stella. “Or should I start with the Resistance?”
“It’s your story,” she said. “Tell it the way you want.”
“Maybe start with who the hell you are, both of you,” I prompted. “If she’s not Stella, and I don’t even know for sure that she’s your niece Kathleen, is your name even Pete Bratcher?”
He looked puzzled but then laughed again.
“Yes,” he said emphatically. “I do know that my name is Pete Bratcher. I’m a mechanic and collector of odd antiques. I have been all my life.”
Somehow the way he said that, the phrase, “a mechanic and collector of odd antiques” seemed to have a meaning I didn’t realize until that morning.
“Alien stuff? THAT sort of odd antiques?”
“What made you think that?” he said, looking genuinely surprised.
“I don’t know,” I said, laughing but not smiling. “Maybe seeing Buzz get killed by a four-armed monster with a ray gun made me think, ‘alien.’”
“Good point,” he nodded. “OK, then. So do you remember the stories about the flying saucer that crash-landed in the desert in 1947?”
I’d say a good 10 seconds ticked by before I could speak.
And then, all I could say was: “No way.”