In Hannagan Meadow
This short story - circa 1600 words, was written in 2020 for one of our writing club's annual competitions. The prompt was the 1970s OR The present day. I decided, under the circumstances, (the COVID pandemic) to combine them both.
I hope you enjoy. Oh, and it won that year!
November 5th, 1975
The truck jostled the seven men on the rear bed as it diverted from tarmac to track. Tony Walton laid a hand lightly on the side panel as they hit a large hump; rock or tree branch in all likelihood. The track leading into the forest petered out eventually, the pick-up jerked to a halt.
“Okay.” Pete Green pulled a roster from the dash. “Hernandez and Acosta. Trevitt and Jones. Mora and Bianca. Walton, you’re with me.”
The men set about claiming their equipment and tools with efficiency and minor banter, GPS units, compass and topographic maps; a couple of chainsaws.
“As usual, the ones for removal are marked with a single yellow stripe. Those with two need trimming. No pesticides today.”
Each pair received a set of co-ordinates. They split off and proceeded into the trees. Walton checked the co-ordinates as he walked.
“Looks like Hannagan Meadow, chief.” Crew lead, Green, gave a single nod of his head. “Didn’t realise it had a problem.”
“Lodge owners want some o’ the pines clearin’. Clients. Cyclists.”
It was the only explanation offered and the only one, Walton knew from experience, he would get. He'd joined the Timber Stand Improvement program less than a year ago, having previously worked as a logger in Dakota, and found this work much more satisfying – it wasn’t about felling for profit, but managing the forest, inspecting trees for disease; protecting it for the fauna and future generations. A buzzing caused Green to, uncharacteristically, make comment,
“Guys reached their location quicker than I thought.”
Walton listened. Didn’t sound like no chainsaw to him. Less than a minute later, both men came to an abrupt halt, and gawped. Approximately one-hundred feet away, and making a high-pitched drone, was a saucer-shaped object hovering above the ground.
“What in God’s name…?” Green sputtered.
Walton took a tentative step forwards, neck craning to see the underside of the silver object. A beam of astonishingly bright light shot down suddenly. He heard Green cry out before he himself, fell swiftly unconscious.
Walton blinked. Excessive brightness, his head fuzzy. Something crawled across his left foot. He let out a shrill shriek, or at least tried. His mouth seemed stoppered. The fuzziness abated and the brightness clarified into a stark, white ceiling. He was prostrate and, frighteningly, appeared to be constrained. He couldn’t move his head an inch, couldn’t see down the length of his body. He swivelled his eyes. To his left, where the whiteness petered into improbable dark, on the lower edge of his vision, a being with its back turned, seemed preoccupied with something. Then to the right. His brain leapt against the inside of his skull. Momma, Walton quavered. His jaw ached terribly, and he realised that the lower portion of his face was covered with a respiratory mask, clamped tight about his jaw holding his mouth ajar. Something trickled into his mouth and down his throat that felt like a chilly thread of ice water.
Three figures, short, bald and clad in unidentifiable garb, a mere arm’s length away, stared down at him. Walton attempted to scream, wriggle free, anything to wake from this horror. Their features were oddly indistinct. But there was one thing of which he was absolutely, positively certain – they weren’t human. One blinked enormous eyes, it’s neighbour blinked back, the third made a sound that reminded him of his old grandpa sucking taffy. Walton whimpered as the central being pointed at him with a semi-opaque appendage, not unlike a mole’s in texture, with long nails. Three bald grey heads bent towards Walton. He passed out.
Later, Walton found himself subjected to a series of what he presumed were medical tests. He’d read the papers. He’d heard things. He knew what this was. He thought of his wife, Marnie, back in their little house in Flagstaff, cooking up a steak and popping a cold beer for him, placing it beside his plate on the coaster that bore the slogan ‘Relax, We’re All Crazy, It’s Not A Competition’. Always the same when he came home from work. She’d kiss the end of his oft-sunburnt nose and sip her own beer whilst she watched him eat, and they’d chat about the day they’d each had. A teacher at the local primary, he'd met her when he and a colleague visited to talk to the kids about the importance of trees and not light fires. She was the dandiest thing he’d ever laid eyes on. Cute as a button with a mighty fierce temper, and he adored her. His cheek tickled. His nose bubbled behind the mask. A long, thin length of something silver touched his face. One of the creatures collected his tears and turned away to an area Walton could not see.
Suspended in mid-air was a plethora of peculiar symbols. The bald creatures would touch, and sometimes move these hanging patterns; Walton believed it some kind of transparent blackboard. He never fully realised his surroundings, but caught glimpses of one constant form he decided was some sort of timepiece. One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi, he began. Something icy probed beneath his skin. He couldn’t cry out, the awful gag put paid to that. They lifted his eyelids, poked things into his ears, behind his eyeballs, until finally the creatures seemed to reach an agreement. Forty Mississippi, forty-one Mississippi, forty-two Mississippi. He whimpered as one creature approached with an evil looking object in its mole-hand. The vicious point was plunged into Walton’s side, scraping along his rib, pushing deep into his organs. Tears sprang from his eyes, snot and dribble coalesced behind the mask. Almost immediately, his body reacted, fingers trembled, his joints throbbed and an overwhelming exhaustion took hold. Forty-three Mississippi, forty-four Mississippi…
“…forty-five Mississippi,” Walton blinked twice.
His nostrils assaulted by an appalling odour. His ears by a cacophony of squeals, grunts and shrieks. Suddenly aware of his nakedness, and the freezing air, he curled into a tighter ball. Something hit him. He had difficulty focusing on the face that leant towards him. Walton cowered back. The face said something he didn’t understand. He whimpered, realised his face was free of the mask and screamed. He felt the earth and gravel on his skin, the vulnerability of his nakedness; the crowd.
“Help me!” he screamed. He grabbed for the hem of someone’s clothing; his hand slapped away. A blanket of sorts was thrown at him, he grasped it close, stood, wobbling and squinting about at the round, brown faces. “Where am I?” he croaked, “Where is this? Help me. Something came and took me.” Those closest backed off, gesturing, calling to others.
He cried. Turned and turned about, looking for something that would yield answers. He saw raw carcasses hanging in rows. He saw small, wooden cages containing animals, both feathered and furred. Strange writing on painted boards. The crowd staggered as two uniformed males pushed them aside. One shouted into Walton’s face.
“I don’t understand. Am I in-"
They grabbed him roughly. Hustled him through the goggling people. Shoved him into an armoured truck, and sped away. Walton kept gabbling, until he received a hefty punch to the stomach.
They drove a few miles. Walton repeatedly asked to call his wife,
“Her name is Marnie, M-A-R-N-I-E, please, call her and tell her where I am.” The soldier, for that was clearly this individual’s role from the blue camouflage uniform to the gun, but no gun that Walton had ever seen before, pointedly ignored him. “My name is Tony Walton, Tony. Do you understand?”
No response. Through the side window, he watched as they passed between two tall concrete walls. They dragged him, despite his pleas, from the vehicle into a grim looking building, down an equally bleak corridor and into a concrete cell.
After some time, the door was thrown back. Walton sat up on the narrow bed. The visitor dragged a steel chair behind him and sat on it facing Walton.
“What is your name?” the man said pushing round spectacles up his nose.
“Tony. Tony Walton,” Walton stammered, “Where am I, where is this place? How did I get here? Is this China?”
His questions were ignored. “Who do you work for?”
“What? I, I work for The Timber Stand Improvement Company.”
The interrogator’s expression never changed. Each time Walton answered, he tapped on a strange slim device made of glass or plastic. Place of birth, why he was naked, where he lived, employer’s name, reason for being in the People’s Republic. After a while, Walton gestured,
“What is that?”
The man halted his tapping. Narrowed his eyes. Walton was disorientated, couldn’t read the body language.
“This,” said the official, holding up the slim device, “is an electronic notebook. Don’t you have them in your wonderful U.S of A?” Walton did recognise a sneer.
Walton snorted, “A what now?” he started to giggle. The officer frowned. “An e-lectronic book? This another space ship?” he felt the room slipping sideways.
Walton sniggered, ‘what a pickle, hey momma?’ he grinned.
“Ain’t gonna do ya no good,” he chuckled, “them little space men gonna pop a spike in you too.” He pointed at the officer who hadn’t moved. “And then old Gerry Ford is gonna-”
“What year do you think it is Mister Walton?”
“What’s that now? Year? Nineteen- seventy five, o' course.”
“Wrong, Mister Walton. It is twenty-nineteen.”
Walton hiccoughed, “What?” He sniffled. Rubbed his face on his sleeve. “What? No.”
“You are in Guangzhou Military base.” The officer stood. “Mister Tony Walton, I am holding you as a suspicious person.” He tapped his pad thing again, “It is December twenty-first, Saturday. Twenty- nineteen.”
“I am charging you with espionage. You are an American citizen who works on behalf of the American government- ”
“-discovered in Wuhan market, Hubei Province on this day. Your government will be informed.”
“I’m not. I didn’t,” Walton rose shakily, “Please. Call my wife. Call Marnie.”
The official dragged the chair behind him. The cell door slammed shut.
“Lemme out! Hey! You can’t do this. Let me go!"
*Author's note: Research on how I could combine the 1970s with today led me to the story of Travis Walton. An American forestry worker Travis Walton claimed to have been abducted by a UFO on November 5, 1975, while he was working in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests near Snowflake, Arizona. Walton was missing for five days and six hours. What, I imagined, if Travis had really been abducted, but for years, and returned, infected with a virus?