There was nothing outwardly strange about Aunt Emily. Nothing that would alert a casual observer, nothing that would alarm even family members — until she opened her mouth and talked. I remember, even as a teenager, her talking about weird stuff — ghosts and witches, aliens and government conspiracies. Some claimed it started when she was in that accident, back in 1994, late at night on a backroad in the Knobs territory of Kentucky — when she said aliens took Uncle Mick. I didn’t think that was the reason, but what I thought didn’t matter to anyone. I was just a kid; and when I grew up, I learned to keep my mouth shut.
She started to be a problem in the family about three years ago. She’d call the police in Two Bridges, to report “them” tapping her phone or crouching in the rhododendrons outside her bedroom window. Now, the police in Two Bridges consists of two officers — the Chief of Police and his assistant. They got to where they’d just call my father, and Dad would go check on her, pretending to cut the wire in the wiretap or checking for footprints under her window. Last year, when Dad’s diabetes got to where it was difficult for him to get around, the job fell on me. I didn’t mind. In my line of work, I deal with people like Aunt Emily a lot.
On Sunday, August 9, Chief of Police Jimmy Ray came to my door. It was late morning, and he stood outside the screen door sweating in his dark uniform. His hat was in his hand, tapping against his right thigh. “Now, I don’t have anything against Miss Emily,” he said, “but this here calling us out at all hours has just got to stop. I got other things to do than chase down her booger men.”
I sighed and rubbed my face. “Called you again, has she?”
“Yes, sir. If this here continues, Jack, we’re just going to have to press charges against her. You and your folks got to do something about her, son. There’s no way around it. She needs help.”
“We can’t afford to put her in a nursing home, Jimmy,” I said.
“I know that. But you get her on medication or something, hear? You know what she told me this time? Said she had some kind of ray being beamed into her house from a satellite and they was looking at her bones. Said she could feel them crawling around under her skin. Now you all do something about her. I don’t want to be down here next time with a court order.”
“I hear you,” I said. “I’ll talk to daddy.”
Jimmy Ray put on his hat and nodded. “I know you’ll do the right thing,” he said.
I watched him leave and reflected that I had no idea what the right thing was. I knew what I should do — but decisions like that are the hardest to make. I went to the phone and called my father. When I told him what Jimmy Ray had said, there was a long silence, then Daddy asked me to go check on her. He’d talk to Mama and then we’d all get together and decide what to do. But, he warned me like he always did, I’d better not go in my own car. Aunt Emily was scared to death of big black cars. I assured him I’d come get his truck, and I hung up the phone.
My parents lived about two miles outside of town, right next to the second of the bridges over the Green River which gives Two Bridges its name. Daddy sat on the porch, tinkering with one of his inventions -- looked like some kind of cross between a washing machine and a lawn mower this time. He have me a laconic wave as I switched vehicles and I waved back.
The old truck started with a roar and a cloud of black smoke. I found an old tee shirt on the floor of the cab and used it to wipe the nicotine film from the windshield. At 73, Daddy still smoked like a freight train. He said if the smoking didn’t kill him, something else would so it hardly mattered. But I didn’t like how thin his voice had gotten, or the rattling coughs that shook him from time to time. Like Aunt Emily, he believed what he wanted and ignored the rest.
I pulled out of the drive and headed down old 174. About five miles from the bridge, I turned onto Carlson-Purnell lane. Dirt and gravel hissed under the wheels as the truck creaked and groaned over the ruts. Oak, maple and sassafras trees leaned over the road, branches slapping at the truck. I rolled the window down and breathed the dusty, woodsy air. I didn’t get a chance to do that often; my work kept me mostly in cities, in a car or an office behind piles of paper. I almost enjoyed driving out to Aunt Emily’s.
Her house was old, built by her grandfather in 1834 and added on to by her father about seventy years ago. The paint was almost gone, flecks of stubborn white clinging to weathered, gray wood. The porch sagged as much as the green-shingled roof. I often thought it was just the force of Aunt Emily’s will that kept the place standing. I pulled into the drive and parked the truck where I knew she could see it and turned off the engine. I waited, the truck hissing and popping as it cooled. After a moment, I saw a yellowed lace curtain twitch and knew I had been seen. I got out of the truck and walked up the path to the porch, making a show of stepping precisely on the weathered stones — Aunt Emily swore there was poison in the ground that would seep through our shoes, just as she used to swear Uncle Mick tried to poison her by coating himself with the fumes from his radiator repair shop. No one knew whatever became of Uncle Mick. She insisted he’d been taken by aliens, but my family didn’t believe her. Most found it easier to think she’d hacked him up and fed him to the chickens.
I moved carefully across the rotting porch and waited, listening to the faint creak of wood on the other side of the door. “It’s me, Aunt Emily. Jack.” I took a deep breath and added in a whisper, “The pigeon’s in the roost and the cow ain’t coming home.”
Bolts and locks were undone. The door creaked open and I saw her thin, wrinkled face, watery opaqued eyes peering at me. “Jackie, you alone?” Her voice was like the tearing of thin paper.
“Yes, Aunt Emily. I came to see how you are.”
Her neck craned as she looked past me, eyes squinting and darting. “Git in. Quick, quick.”
I went into the house as she shut and locked the door behind me. Darkness hung in the air, musty with the smell of stale cigarettes and an underlying odor that reminded me uncomfortably of the time I had to follow someone down an old, disused sewer pipe. I wondered if she ever left the house at all anymore. Antique furniture, blackened with age, looked like a dust rag hadn’t been near any of it in years. The dark wood floor was sticky beneath my shoes. But Aunt Emily herself was immaculately clean, her white hair tightly curled and her white housecoat crisply ironed except where it was wrinkled from sitting. She always wore white. Colors, she said, were too easy to add poison to.
“Jimmy —” I started, but she cut me off with a sharp gesture and motioned for me to follow her. I gave her the “okay” sign her smile transformed her face to the woman I remembered from my childhood, who gave me rock candy and sang hymns to me when I was sick. Who told me I could grow up to be whatever I wanted to be. I’d believed her, back then.
I followed her through the narrow, dingy hall to her bedroom. It was darker in there, with thick black drapes over the windows. She had a canopy bed, and it looked like she spent a lot of time there. The sheets were pulled back, a full ashtray and an open bible on them, and a small .25 calibre gun on the bible. A filterless cigarette smoldered to its end, rank smoke rising in pale gray fronds. Nearby was a battered black satchel. She crawled on to the bed, pulled the satchel close against her body and motioned for me to join her. I hesitated, uncomfortable with that idea, and she gestured to canopy. She had lined the inside of it with chicken wire covered by aluminum foil. I understood, then.
I sat crosslegged at the foot of the bed. “Aunt Emily,” I whispered, “Jimmy Ray isn’t going to come out here anymore, unless it’s with a court order to put you in a hospital. Do you understand that?”
“Ain’t no need whispering,” Emily said. “They can’t hear through the foil. Can’t reach me with the ray, neither.”
“I — yes, I see. But you got to understand about Jimmy.”
“I understand, yes sir. He’s done joined Them. I knowed They’d git him. They git all them eventually. You know that, don’t you? Don’t you trust nobody. They’re all around us, boy.”
“You’ve told me, and I’ve always been careful.” I considered how to proceed. “You know,” I said at last, “I don’t think you’re looking too good. Now, I know a doctor—”
“Oh, no! Oh, no sir. I ain’t going to no doctor. They’s with Them. They’ll put one of them bugs in me and I’ll never be able to hide.”
“But this doctor, I know he’s not one of Them. In fact —” I was going to pay for this one, I was sure — “he told me that he’s on a secret mission. To debug people that They have gotten hold of. He doesn’t trust Them either. He says he just trusts Jesus and none of them will ever be able to pretend to be Jesus. That’s because Jesus never wore black.”
Aunt Emily’s thin hands plucked at the cover. “Don’t you trust him. They lie and lie. They’ll use the lord’s name, yes They will, to trap us.” She leaned forward, intent. “I got the proof. Right here.” She patted the satchel. “But I can’t guard it no more. I can’t — I fall asleep when I don’t want to. They done that to me, boy. They’d spray your uncle Mick and he’d come in and I’d breathe that and now I can’t stay awake no more. I got to git this here proof to —” she hesitated, glanced around and lowered her voice even more -- “to the FBI. To that there boy that’s going to crack it all open wider than the mouth of hell on a Saturday night.”
I tried to keep the mystification of my face. FBI? Boy? All I knew was I had to keep her away from the FBI. I could just imagine what they’d do with her “proof.” But first, I had to know what she was talking about. “What kind of proof, Aunt Emily? You never told me you had proof.”
She glanced up at the foil lined canopy, then over to the darkened window. Then she pushed the bible toward me. “You put your hand on that there and you swear, boy. You swear you’ll never repeat what I tell you until it’s time.”
I’d done that little ritual many times. “I swear,” I said. The battered leather cover of the bible was rough and cool beneath my fingers.
“You’re a good boy. Ain’t like them others, crazy people in the family won’t listen to me. You know the truth. You know They’ll try to git us.”
“That’s why I want to help you, Aunt Emily,” I said. I put all the conviction I could in my voice, wondering how in the hell I was going to get her to a doctor or a hospital, or something. And I was curious about just what she had in that satchel. “It’s just you and me, and we’ve got to look out for each other. I believe you, and I trust you. So tell me what proof you’ve got, and we’ll decide how we can use it to beat Them.”
Her tongue, pale and yellowed by tobacco, licked her cracked lips. “I got—pictures.”
Something inside me went very still. I had not expected that. “Pictures. Of what?”
“What—what they done to your uncle. What they done to Mick.” She pulled the satchel around and hugged it to her bony chest. “I got it all here, Jackie. I got it.”
“Can I see?”
I swear, she trembled with her effort to trust me. Then she cupped her right hand over the combination lock to shield it from my eyes while her left hand fiddled with the dials. They didn’t work at first, not until she bent close enough to see the numbers with her misting eyes. The lock popped open.
I had a glimpse of yellowed papers before she pulled a brownkraft envelope out. Her hand shook as she gave it to me. I opened it carefully, glancing at her to gauge her reaction. She looked intent, scared, and strangely exultant. There were photos in there, 8x10 black and whites, fuzzy images caught by grainy high speed film. I looked at them, my heart sinking, seeing what happened to Uncle Mick, the evidence caught despite the darkness of night, the whiteness of his body against darkness, knowing it all now — knowing how dangerous she was and knowing what I had to do. It seemed suddenly very cold in the old house. I cursed myself for not doing something sooner, for just thinking of her as my crazy aunt.
I put the pictures back into the envelope carefully and gave it back to her. “Aunt Emily, I — I think we ought to do something. And do it soon. What you got there, it’s too important to keep here. We got to get it to a safe place. We got to do that fast.” I rubbed my eyes. “What They did to Uncle Mick — They could do to others. To you.”
“They are,” she whispered. “I know They are.”
“And we’ve got to get you to a safe place. They probably know what you’ve got there and it’s just a matter of time—”
She clutched the satchel, her head wobbling back and forth on her thin neck. “No, no. I ain’t going nowhere.”
“Listen, you aren’t safe here. They’ll figure out how to penetrate your foil. You said you can’t stay awake any more. They could get in here and you wouldn’t know until it was too late. But I’ll hide you. I’ll hide you where They won’t find you.” My head ached, I was thinking so hard. “Listen. My basement is lined with...titanium. They can’t penetrate that. You’d be safe there.”
“They’ll see,” she whispered. “They’ll see me go with you.”
I glanced around and made a show of making sure every part of my body was under that aluminum lined canopy. “That’s where we’ll fool Them,” I said. “I’ve got a big black car, just like They drive. I’ll come for you tonight, and They’ll think one of their own got you. You’ll be safe.”
“You—you got a big black car?” Distrust was dawning in her eyes. I had to stop it.
“Yes. Clever of me, don’t you think? I beat Them at Their own game. I got a car like what They drive, so They think I’m one of them.”
“You don’t wear black,” she said. “They all wear black. Black suits, black glasses, black cars. I seen Them. They follow me. They look in the windows.”
I gestured at the blue jeans and tee shirt I was wearing. “What you see is what you get,” I said. “Look — how long will it be before They penetrate your foil? Then what? You’ll be asleep and They’ll come in. They’ll get you.” I felt dishonest and cruel, but there was no choice. “I can keep you safe. You’ve got to trust me, Aunt Emily.”
“Titanium,” she whispered, as though tasting the word for its strength.
“Yes. Floor, ceiling, walls—all lined. They won’t get through that. I swear it.”
She looked around her dingy, dirty room and her eyes filled with tears. “I’m scared, Jackie.”
Slowly, carefully, I patted her hand as it clutched the satchel. “Don’t be. I’ll keep you safe. Anyone who tries to get to you will have to come through me first. And I’m ready for them. I listened to you, didn’t I? I’m the only one who believes you, so I can protect us both. Trust me, Aunt Emily.”
“I’m so tired,” she said, and started to cry.
The plan was made, and in the late afternoon I left Aunt Emily alone with her bible and her gun. I was to come back at midnight. I went back to my parents’ house, and sat with Mama and Daddy at the kitchen table, sipping iced tea and telling them what I thought they should know.
“I’ll get her in the car,” I said, “and I’ll take her to the hospital. I can sign for her there. I’ve already been to the lawyer’s. She won’t know where I’m taking her because she’ll be crouched down in the back seat under a blanket. And I’ve got childlocks, so even if she does figure it out, she can’t get out. Once I get her there — well, we can get some help for her.”
“Poor thing,” Mama whispered, looking down at the faded red vinyl tablecloth.
“Poor thing, hell,” Daddy said. “Crazy as a damn bird, that’s what she is. You just get her there, youngun, and if there’s any other signing to be done you just let me know.”
I moved my glass around in the small puddle of water under it. “She really believes those men in black are after her, doesn’t she?”
Daddy exhaled a cloud of smoke and stubbed out his cigarette in the cracked porcelain ashtray by his right hand. “Ever since she read that article in--what was it, Mama? Enquirer or Star or some other piece of news trash. Men in black. Used to be aliens, and before that it was commies.”
“She always claimed aliens got Mick,” Mama said.
“Crazy,” Daddy said. “Crazy as hell.”
Midnight, in a darkness with no stars or moon, I pulled up to Aunt Emily’s in my black Intrepid, headlights off, and killed the engine. I wore blue jeans, a dark green shirt and white sneakers. I got out, stood in front of the car and lifted my hand, thumb, middle and ring fingers spread out, just like Spock in Star Trek. It was a Hebrew letter, I’d told her, first letter in the name of the Almighty and surely something those evil men couldn’t do. She was pleased with that. Anything, I’d thought, that would make her trust me.
I saw the lace curtain twitch and waited. A few minutes later, she came out, bundled into a long dark coat and clutching her satchel to her chest. She hesitated on the porch, peering into the night as though her cataract clouded eyes could see like infra red into those woods beyond the road. I opened the back door. She scurried down the steps and crawled into the back seat as though a man in black was right behind her with claws outstretched and fangs bared. I pulled a blanket up over her and patted her shoulder.
“It’ll be all right, Aunt Emily,” I whispered. I saw the whites of her eyes gleaming in the darkness. I wished I could take away her fear. I wished I didn’t have to do what I had to do.
I made sure she was tucked in and closed the door quietly. I got into the driver’s seat, eased the door shut and started the engine. I turned on the headlights.
“No lights,” she hissed.
I ignored her. I turned on the radio to the local public radio station and listened for a moment to the sweet strains of Mozart’s Eine Klein Nacht Muzik.
“Quiet.” Aunt Emily’s voice was harsh, panicked. “You got to be quiet.”
I took a breath. My hand moved, touching a button on the dash. The doors locked and a clear, shatterproof shield rose behind my seat. I saw her face in the rearview mirror, astonished, terrified. She pounded on the plexiglass, yelling something I could not hear. I lowered the volume on the radio, touched the mic switch and turned toward her.
I said, very gently, “We don’t always wear black, Aunt Emily.”