“You can hear aliens?” Bryant said in a hush, watching Father Joe bend over to pick up imaginary lint from the carpet in front of the altar.
Margo looked down and began folding the tissue on her lap again, first in half, then quarters. “Yeah.”
“These aliens,” Bryant said, “where do you see them?”
Margo wouldn’t look up, her hands busy on her lap. “See that’s the problem. I can’t see them. They’re invisible.”
That stopped him. He sat upright in the pew and regained his psychiatric footing like a boxer hearing the bell ring. “Invisible?”
“Yeah, I know.”
Invisible aliens. Her words were linked together in such a way, he knew deep down they meant more than their contextual surface. Bryant could tell more from words and body language than a team of specialists could learn from a series of laboratory tests. It was simply a matter of finding their origin, the reason for their existence. No one ever spoke a word without a source, either from hatred, or regret, or capricious jealousy. It was his one great skill in life. Finding the source of spoken words.
“Why do you suppose they chose to speak with you?” he asked.
Her tiny frame shifted uncomfortably while her hands fidgeted with the tissues. “I guess because I’m the only one who can hear them. Actually I can’t tell if they’re speaking or just thinking.”
Margo’s head was down, her hands still busy. Telltale signs of an internal struggle. Something wasn’t right.
“I know, I know, it’s confusing,” she said. “A moment ago you believed me, but now you’re thinking I’m psychotic.”
“Now, listen. I—”
“Oh, you’re already searching your memory for the textbook diagnosis.”
“Wait a minute, you—”
“And if you think I’m psychotic, what possible hope could I have with anyone else?”
Bryant held up his hand like a crossing guard. “Stop.”
He ran his hand through his hair and let out a breath. “If we’re going to continue this conversation, you have to promise me one thing.”
“You have to promise to stay out of my head,” he said. “I can’t think straight with an audience in there.”
Margo half-smiled. “Okay.”
Bryant looked over at the fragile girl with the skinny legs and the ponytail and wondered where to start. It was like scraping together a sand castle at low tide. Eventually anything he did for her would be washed away once the tide of discomfort rolled back in. There just wasn’t the time.
“Why did you come to see me in the first place?” Bryant asked.
Margo shrugged, her head low. “Ever since my parents died, I’ve just never felt right. I guess I thought you could help.”
“I’m sorry. How did they die?”
Margo’s shoulders began to shudder while she dabbed the tissues to the corner of her eyes. “The plane . . .” she sucked in a quick breath, “the plane . . .”
Bryant gathered her in his arms and let her sob. He said nothing as she convulsed
and hiccupped into his chest. Father Joe glanced over with anticipation, but Bryant looked him off. The priest nodded and moved on to another task which kept him nearby.
As Margo’s tears seeped through Bryant’s shirt, he fought back his own wave of sadness. He realized he hadn’t held a girl in his arms that way since . . . He stopped short of bringing on a panic attack by cradling the young girl’s head and murmuring, “It’s okay. You’ll be okay.” But he couldn’t possibly offer her any logical reason why.
The front door creaked open behind them, allowing an overhead cloud to grumble a reminder of its presence. A pair of footsteps came through the tiled entryway and stopped before reaching the door of the main part of the church.
Margo mumbled something between moans and Bryant lowered his head. “What’s that?” he asked.
With her head buried into the crook of his shoulder, she said. “Make him go
Bryant turned to see a man wearing a suit and tie standing on the other side of the door, looking through the window framed into the top half. He stared at Bryant with cold eyes.
Bryant whispered in her ear, “The guy in the lobby?”
He felt her nod into his chest.
“Do you know him?”
Margo was obviously trying to gather herself by forcing longer breaths. She shook her head.
Bryant released his hold of the girl and leaned forward to get up. Margo grabbed a handful of his shirt and pulled him back down.
“Careful,” she said. “He’s dangerous.”
When Bryant turned around the man was gone. Bryant hurried down the aisle for the exit. By the time he got outside, the black Ford Expedition was backing up from a parking space, heading toward Bryant. He recognized the tiny “G” at the top of the license plate that designated a government-issued vehicle. The driver stopped the car just a few feet from Bryant. As he shifted the transmission from reverse to drive, he stared at Bryant through the rearview mirror. Bryant stared back. The SUV remained still, while the rain tapped its exterior. The bright red brake lights glared at Bryant in the darkness of the storm. No one moved. Bryant’s pulse raced as he waited.
The man jammed the gearshift into park. The brake lights disappeared. The driver’s car door opened an inch as the man seemed to consider his next move.
Bryant stood firm, his shirt soaked from tears and drizzle. He found his hands clenching and unclenching by his side. He couldn’t understand why a government official would be glaring at him like he was Al Capone.
The car door opened and the man jumped out and marched toward Bryant. He was shorter than Bryant by a couple of inches, but his demeanor and his determined expression set Bryant back on his heels.
The man stomped up to Bryant as if he were going to walk right through him. He stopped a foot away. His face had wrinkles in severe angles around his eyes and mouth that probably aged the man an extra decade. They must’ve taken years of interrogation to get there.
“Don’t get involved with something you don’t understand,” the man growled.
Despite the rain trickling down his face, Bryant’s mouth was dry. “Who are you?” he asked.
The man seemed to consider the question, then gave Bryant a distasteful look before turning back to the car. Just before he slid into the driver’s seat, he growled, “I’m the man who can prevent you from going to Jackson Hole, Wyoming.”
He slammed the car door and the tires squealed as they spun on the slick surface of the asphalt parking lot, spraying up a stream of water as he fishtailed away.
Bryant stood dumbfounded for a solid minute before he reentered the church and discovered Father Joe by himself.
“Where’d she go?” Bryant asked.
“I don’t know,” Father Joe said. “But she’s here every day. I’m sure she’ll be back tomorrow.”
Bryant squeezed the back of his neck and grimaced. What was he getting involved with? “Will you call me when she shows up?”
“Of course, Michael. Is everything okay?”
Bryant thought about the question. There was a girl walking around thinking she spoke with aliens. A stalled storm system had the entire city acting loony, and a government official had just threatened him in the parking lot.
“Yeah,” Bryant said. “Everything’s just peachy.”