1 - CHERRY ALA UFO

     Iridescent ichor quivers on my lashes; it streaks my hair, coats my lips. A heavy ozone scent with top notes of decomposing tuna challenges me to keep down the pie in my stomach. Key lime. 

     The air in this pocket is thin; black stars dance in my vision as I pull in a rattling gasp. I jab my open hand through the flabby tissue in front of me. It splits apart like gelatin and hot gore gushes over my arm. The surrounding walls clench, pressing against my body. A pained moan rumbles from somewhere deep below. 

     Webs of veins brush my cheeks and catch in my hair as I squeeze through the gap, and I concentrate as hard as I can on the creamy tartness of lime pie, because if I don’t, if I think too much about the sticky fluid coating my face, the tuna smell, and the watery light illuminating translucent tissue, I’m going to stop, shut down, and be absorbed by this monstrosity.

     My fist tears through an organ wall. The flesh cocooning me clenches harder, muscle squeezing, trying to expel me like a splinter.

     Key lime.

     Peanut butter.

     Bourbon pecan.

     Cherry.

     Keep going. 

     Don’t stop.

 

LAST FRIDAY

 

     The cherry pie at Lynn’s Diner off of Highway 287 was abysmal, and I said it much louder than intended. 

     The waitress turned to me. Her foundation was two shades darker than her skin tone, making her head seem like it had been popped off of a different body and twisted onto this one. “Suppose I’ll be taking this away then, huh?” She reached for the plate of pie.

     I jerked it toward myself and the fork clattered onto the counter. “I’m not finished.”

     “But you said it’s awful.”

     “It is.” Watery pink juice ran into the creases of the plate, and bits of anemic pastry clung to the fork. I captured a few more contact lens photos with a flick of my eyelids, then carved into the slab and pushed another bite into my mouth. The waitress watched—maybe she thought I’d change my mind.

     She folded her arms over her pinstriped uniform. “Well? What’s wrong with it?”

     It wasn’t sensational. It wasn’t even palatable. I hit record on the phone and didn’t bother to keep my voice down since she had asked. “The crust leaves a greasy film on the roof of my mouth and has the consistency of stale crackers. It’s hard to imagine these cherries as ever being anything other than the congealed, indeterminate mass they are now. Metallic and overly sweet mush that makes my tongue unhappy. This pie tastes like broken dreams. Two stars.”

     Frown lines cut into the waitress’ cakey makeup. “You a food critic?”

     “Something like that. You probably saw my article about The Lounge’s delicious alphabet pie back in November.”

     Everyone had seen it. The post had gone viral. The blog itself was a failure, and I’d never managed to recreate the popularity of someone resurrecting a bizarre 1940s recipe that involved cinnamon red hots and alphabet noodles. There was still enough traffic to that post to generate a bit of income, but anything I wrote about this cherry pie wasn’t going to help me pay my rent this month.

     The waitress cocked an eyebrow. “You wrote that, huh?”

     “Yes. And I hate to say this, but I was expecting much better from this place.” I supposed that’s what I got for taking the word of a couple of random truck drivers. What a waste.

     Dishes clattered into a busser’s tub and I winced. There were only a couple of other patrons in a booth by the window, the conversation so sparse that I hadn’t needed to use my earplugs, but the shriek of ceramic on ceramic made me stuff my hand in my pocket and squeeze the rubber plugs, ensuring they were there in case it happened again.

     “We aren’t really known for our pie, hon. It’s not homemade. The regulars come for our burgers. Want one?” This time, when the waitress reached for my plate, I didn’t stop her. I wondered if it was a prerequisite when applying for a serving job that you called people hon.

     “No, thank you. You know, I don’t know what brand that is”—I pointed at the pie—“but Southern Tree makes a great one. Flaky crust with tart whole cherries and the slightest hint of almond. Just egg wash the top and dust it with sugar and you’d have a six or seven star pie. You could be known for burgers and pie.”

She pulled in a measured breath the way everyone did when I started giving my opinion too much. “I’ll pass your suggestion on to Lynn.”

     “Are you insulted? It wasn’t my intention. I’m judging the pie’s character alone. And it’s a shady fella I wouldn’t trust around children.”

     It was supposed to be a joke, but the waitress rolled her eyes. “Do us all a favor and don’t come back, huh?” She disappeared into the kitchen with the plate.

     Sighing, I dug out some ones and tucked them under my coffee cup. I scrawled on the back of a napkin that finding the right shade of foundation was a simple matter of testing it on one’s inner wrist, and some blending sponges would make the application look better at the jawline.

     The vinyl stool groaned as I slid off and wedged on my felt boater. I hesitated, then turned back and crumpled up the napkin note. Someone needed to tell the waitress, but she’d already taken personal offense to my observations once. Pointing out her makeup skills would only make her angrier.

     After hitting record, I said, “Despite the secret ingredient of the pie being disappointment, the coffee was fresh and the diner’s atmosphere pleasant.” Framed prints hung above empty booths; all of them depicted barns in various seasonal settings. They looked like they may have been pulled from a wall calendar. I blinked a few photos and received no error messages in return. These little places didn’t employ privacy fields the way bigger restaurants did. “The decor is dust-free and follows a themed, if somewhat uninspired, setting. I’m told Lynn’s is well-known for their burgers, so if you find yourself in the area, give them a try and let me know what you think.”

     If I used an earbud and eye commands to dictate instead of a phone, it would likely garner me less irritated glares. I only needed to whisper for an earbud to hear my voice. But it also picked up me chewing, which had sounded so obscene on the playback that I hadn’t attempted it again. A phone would have to do, unless I wanted to walk around with a notepad full of chicken scratch like some old-timey journalist.

     A brusque wind hit me as I pushed through the door, whipping hair across my face. I pressed my hat firmly onto my head and hunched into my jacket. Gravel squeaked beneath my shoes. The first stars glinted above in the clear dark. My little Ford sat lonely in the parking lot, bathed in the jaundiced glow of an arc sodium light.

     Maybe writing up a post about this place was unwise. It wouldn’t make the diner look good, and even though there were blogs that thrived on roasting restaurants with bad food, I had never wanted to be one of those. I gave an honest opinion, that was all. But my honest opinions weren’t paying the bills.

     I slid into the truck and pushed the starter, my nose pressed against the scratchy wool lapels of my jacket. Once the condensation disappeared from the windshield, I turned onto the highway, heading back for Muddy Gap.

     Freelance gigs for online magazines were coming more and more infrequently. It was hard to say whether the opportunities were scarce or they didn’t like my writing enough to hand me new projects. 

     Being subscribed to a service that would ship items to me from different companies to review was more dependable, but the pay wasn’t enough to survive on. I’d been asked to select a gender upon signing up, so they could tailor products to me, but their site was woefully behind the times and didn’t have an option for nonbinary.            They also seemed to conflate gender with sex. This sometimes caused issues with what I was asked to try. Vitamin supplements, lipsticks, cologne samples, and hair removal cream were all fine. But when I didn’t possess the specific anatomy or functions needed to use something, I had to pay postage to send it back. I could have told someone in customer service the issue, but their only contact information was a phone number.

     I tried unboxings. The appeal of watching someone else open a package and pull the shrink wrap off of a white noise machine was beyond me, but it was popular and seemed easy enough. 

     I hadn’t anticipated that I would freeze up as badly on a video as I did on the phone. I’d become so frustrated and flustered that I laid on the floor for an hour, the camera still recording, with the unopened package and an x-acto knife sitting on the table.

     The landlady, Mrs. Mumford, had no sympathy for my money problems, and I’d already borrowed too much from Jenny last month to make ends meet.

     Zagging static exploded from the radio and I jerked the wheel. The truck swerved past the edge line and onto the rumble strip, the combined noise becoming an awful crunch that filled the cab. I slammed on the brakes, heart hammering, then punched the audio button off. I’d never had it selected for radio—who listened to the radio?

     The hard-edged thumps of tires over the rumble strip still echoed in my ears. I pulled in a slow breath, trying to let sanitizing silence back in. There were times I’d had pie so good I thought I could die happy, but after that cherry abomination back at the diner, crashing and expiring in a ditch was not how I wanted things to end.

     Something caught my eye beyond the windshield. A bright light rolled across the sky like a loose pearl on velvet. It veered off course so quickly it took me a moment to find it again. I mashed the hazards and hopped out of the truck. The wind threatened to carry away my hat.

     Muddy Gap was still quite a few miles away, only a faint light huddled against the horizon gave any indication that it was ahead. The object drifted over town, then grew in size, flaring into an aggressive brilliance. Sour green bled from the central point, fingers of color chasing away the dark. An explosion?

     I blinked half a dozen photos, a white half moon from the flare still ghosting in my vision. The green iris of sky grew magenta at the edges, then shrank as the night swallowed it.

     That was not a plane. Bringing up a search engine in my contacts, I looked for probable causes but only found unhelpful suggestions of meteorites, space junk, or the wink of a satellite as it rotated. With as quickly as the thing had changed directions, that was impossible. Ball lightning and earthquake plasma discharge sounded interesting, but if there was an earthquake, I probably would have felt it.

     I slid back into the truck and pulled onto the road. There was always the classic go-to of “alien spacecraft.” My inner child squealed at the prospect. So many hours on the school bus, nose buried in a book, squinting at grainy photos of mysterious saucer shapes.

     But if aliens had stopped over Muddy Gap, surely they were lost. 

     Trees and houses flew by on both sides of the highway. I slowed, coming around the curve that took me into town. A marquee wrapping Gem’s Market advertised a sale on chicken thighs, the glow limning the nearby Mormon church in an eerie orange.

     It was tempting to stop at the tiny restaurant across the street and ask if anyone had seen the UFO, but I wasn’t well-received there after comparing their peppermint chiffon to a tin of chalky breath mints.

     Darkness shrouded the parking lot in front of my complex, none of the lights on. I parked and picked my way past silhouetted bushes, stumbling twice on parking chocks. Trevor stood outside his open door, smoking, his face all but obscured by the hood of his coat.

     “Hey Pie Guy.” 

     “My name is Denver. I introduced myself to you last week. We had an argument about skim milk.” Skim was nothing but white water, but Trevor had disagreed.

     “I remember.” A halo of smoke curled around his head.

     “Okay, well…” What point was I trying to make exactly? I didn’t care about being called a guy, even though I was more of a genderless void than anything. And my name was unique enough that it should have been easy to recall.  “Did you see that flash in the sky?”

     He looked up like it might still be there. “No. I’m watching the game, but I’m only half-invested. What was it?”

     “I don’t know.” I peered beyond Trevor’s open curtains at the screen mounted on the wall. A tiny NO SIGNAL announcement drifted across a blue background. “Your signal is out.”

     He turned. “Huh.”

     I coiled a lock of hair around my finger and tugged on it. Would ball lightning knock out a TV signal? Or a radio signal? Maybe there were none and the truck had always played static.

     “What radio stations do we get here?”

     “Who listens to the radio?” Trevor stubbed out his cigarette and walked back inside.

     I stared at the dying embers in his ashtray, then climbed the stairs and unlocked my door. The overwhelming scent of Vanilla Escape bombarded me as I entered. The little air freshener was only supposed to perfume the bathroom, but even at the lowest setting, it permeated the entire apartment. The issue would definitely be going in my product review. 

     Fractal light played across the wall from the fish tank. I pulled off my jacket and hat and peered through the glass. Neon tetras and zebra danios darted by. One of the dwarf frogs sat with its head buried in a plastic plant, legs in the air.

     “Goofybutt.”

     Dropping onto the bed, I sent all the photos from my contact lenses to my laptop, then opened the folder. I tried clicking the first one and an error box appeared. FILE SYSTEM ERROR 0x2309729525. 

     That was new. I clicked on the next one and was met with the same error. 

     “Damn.” I hadn’t expected the pictures to be great, as the contact camera didn’t work well at night and at long distances, but the images should have at least come up.

     I tried opening all of the files, then paused. Where were the photos from the diner? The pie and the calendar prints of barns in the fall?

     Cycling back, I hovered over the time stamps. The last six were taken at eight fourteen, when I’d been driving home. Then seven forty-three. Seven thirty-five. Seven twenty, when the waitress had set my plate on the counter.

     I tried to imagine the pie with its sickly crust and watery filling instead of the little error box.

     A hard knot formed in my chest. I slid out my phone and hit play on the recording, expecting to hear: The cherry pie at Lynn’s Diner off of Highway 287 is abysmal.

     A lattice of crackles and hisses blasted from the speaker, and I turned down the volume. The progress bar slid from one end to the other, seconds rolling over.

     One minute and three seconds of nothing but static.

 

***

 

     Certainly not a handmade affair, the blob of red sandwiched between a limp, insipid crust looked more like a special effect from a horror movie than anything that should be on a diner’s plate.

     I rubbed my gritty eyes. Without my dictation, I couldn’t remember any of the details of what the pie tasted like, other than bad. And maybe that line was unnecessarily cruel. I had trouble determining things like that, but previous experience told me that often when I thought I was being honest, I was in reality being mean.

     I sipped the dregs of my chamomile tea and picked a soggy bit of leaf from the side of the cup.

     Trying again, I wrote: Focused on the pride of their diner—hamburgers that their regulars can’t get enough of—it’s clear that pie is an afterthought. An accoutrement poorly chosen and not in high enough demand for a suitable replacement to be purchased. This pastry is better off in the back of the freezer where it came from than on anyone’s plate. Order a burger instead.

     I thudded my head against the desk. I could gush at length about the buttery, melt-in-your-mouth phyllo on the chocolate silk at Goat’s Inn, or the creamy texture and bright notes of clove in the deep dish pumpkin from Elm’s Bakery. This wasn’t my best post, but it was one AM, I couldn’t remember shit, and the only thing on my mind was the notion that a UFO had exploded over Muddy Gap and corrupted all my pictures and voice notes.

     Maybe I should delete the blog. No more Pie Guy. Hoping to go viral again, to have people notice me and care about my opinions, was foolish. What went viral and boosted someone’s popularity was unpredictable, and it was clear the revenue from my dutiful reviews of diner and bakery fare wasn’t sustainable.

     But voicing my thoughts during my daily life always ended in trouble. In the past, when I’d shopped for groceries in person, the manager hadn’t cared that she could be ordering Rose Bush brand ice cream instead of that crap they had in the cooler. And when I mentioned my concern about Mrs. White’s beer purchasing habits, the cashier only became irritated.

     I needed the blog. At least there I could have opinions without people getting upset.

     After reading over my brief pie review, I added that I had no photos to share and explained why. Putting down my experience and questions about the event in the sky was useless to tack on, but I wanted to tell someone.

     The more I wrote, the more that part of me—the kid who had been so absorbed with aliens and the paranormal—started to push its way to the front. I’d checked out the same books from the library over and over, to the point that the librarian not so subtly tried to guide my attention to something else every time our class arrived. The classic saucer shapes were fun, but the photos always looked like something I could easily fake at home with the toss of a Frisbee. Cigars were weird and light formations kind of boring, but the black triangles had given me chills. My first experience with something possibly extraterrestrial had been so far away that I couldn’t tell the craft’s shape, which was too bad. But if I’d been in town, I would have been sitting right where I was now and missed it entirely. At least the trip was worth it in that respect.

     I hit publish on the post, then closed down the laptop and crawled beneath the covers. Cocooned in warmth, it was easy to relax, but my mind wouldn’t turn off. Could magnetic discharge have wiped my photos and notes and disrupted TV and radio signals? 

     Maybe it wasn’t an alien craft, but a secret government jet on its way to Groom Lake. 

     Or maybe those delinquent teens at the park had shot off illegal Mexican fireworks.

I snatched a fidget toy from the desk and clicked a button on the side continuously until my harried thoughts quelled. My sleep must have been deep and dreamless, because when I opened my eyes to light streaming through the curtains, it felt like no time had passed.

     With a steaming cup of coffee and a slice of salted caramel apple pie, I sat at the laptop and checked the Rawlins city news, scrolling past new game and fish laws, a child abuse arrest, and the herd health of migrating mule deer. A tiny sun shimmered on the screen beside a projected high of forty-seven degrees.

     Hmm. Well, even though Rawlins was closest, it wasn’t huge, and anyone in Muddy Gap who’d seen the UFO likely called Casper news stations instead. 

     I pulled up the Oil City Tribune and carved into the pie. Starbursts of salt and soft spiced apple overwhelmed my mouth as I took a bite. I sagged into the chair with a sigh. Now this was worthy of writing a blog post about.     Unfortunately, I already had, and at great length. If it got Duran’s Bakery any additional traffic, no one ever mentioned it when I showed up and ordered more.

     Caramel stuck to my lips and I wiped it away, scrolling down the front page. A high speed chase ended in a crash into the side of Greater Lending Bank on the west side of Casper. Ongoing construction on E 2nd Street near the hospital. A high of forty-nine degrees, partly cloudy.

     Still nothing? 

     I typed into the search bar, explosion over Muddy Gap, Wyoming. Photos of a fiery truck collision appeared on screen. Typing in meteorite, ball lightning, and strange lights yielded nothing relevant. 

     Scooping up stray bits of apple and gooey sauce, I clicked on a photo of UFOs seen north of Muddy Gap three years previous. The little specks of light looked more like gnats stuck to a windshield.

     There should have been bold headlines screaming about blinding flashes that disrupted television signals, and high resolution photos of the kind I had failed to capture. Certainly I couldn’t have been the only one to have noticed. There’d been people in the supermarket parking lot and cars driving through town. 

     Good pie remedied bad, but if search results didn’t reveal answers or even evidence of what I saw, my curiosity wasn’t going to leave me alone.

     I opened a new tab and checked my email. Twelve messages waited, all of them with the same headline: You have a new comment on “Lynn’s …

     When my post about The Lounge went viral, I woke up to four hundred new comments and a lot of gripes on Push Pin about the blog crashing because so many people were trying to visit at once.

     I’d foolishly increased my bandwidth after that, thinking the traffic would remain steady. 

     This was nothing close to that, but still more comments than any of my other posts received.

     I opened the blog and scrolled to the bottom.

 

sherryb13: So what was it?

          pie_dood: maybe there’s a crater in your town with a chunk of satellite in it.

                    мороженое_12: And maybe it hit a radio tower on the way down!!

heyo234093: The answer is always ALIENS

          catfever0808: if Denver gets probed, I want pictures

coffeerings: Did not expect mysterious intrigue from a pie blog. 😆 Seriously tho, what was it?

burnt_nugget: The government has been doing secret experimentation on small towns like yours for years. This is right out of their playbook.

tamfan69: Don’t leave us hanging! I love your witty posts and excellent photography. You can’t share something even juicier than pie and not let us seeeee.

          mammas_apple: tell us Denver

          mammas_apple: Denver tell us

          mammas_apple: i live in casper and if the military is doing experiments i wanna know

          mammas_apple: btw ive eaten the pie at many of the places on your blog and your critiques are always spot on 

 

     Not only were there comments, but several people had gone through my archive, liking all of the posts from alphabet to zucchini. Opening a new tab, I checked my ad revenue. My fork slipped from my fingers and clattered against the desk. On an average day, I made maybe twenty-five dollars, and nearly all of that came from the alphabet pie post. $103 stared back at me from the screen, and I clicked the date to be certain the parameters were only set for today.

     Shares on Push Pin had driven more people to the blog that would have ever visited organically. Clicking the links inundated me with more mentions of my snappy writing, people’s favorite types of pies, and how beautiful my hair was.

     My pulse pounded in my temples, and I had to seize back control of my excited hands to even scroll down the page. I was popular again. People liked my words, and my hair, and me. Not only that, I was making money.

     My cheeks ached from how hard I was grinning, but I couldn’t sit here all day, enticing as it was. The attention was wonderful, but too much of it would make me overwhelmed; I’d be compelled to delete the post and hide under the sheets.

     I clicked a new comments thread. More stories about pie. More people referring to me by name. And of course, everyone asking what the hell flew over town and did I have pictures?

     Well, I needed them now. Without convincing evidence or someone to corroborate the story, the attention would fizzle and my ad revenue would drop back to double digits. 

     I couldn’t let that happen.